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   Chapter 33 No.33

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 16961

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

When Eleanor got her breath, after that crazy outbreak, she rushed up to her own room, bolted the door, fell on her knees at her bedside, and told herself in frantic gasps, that she would fight Edith Houghton! Grapple with her! Beat her away from Maurice! "I must do something-do something-"

But what? There was only one weapon with which she could vanquish Edith-Maurice's love for his son. Jacky! She must have Jacky ...

But how could she get him?

She knew she couldn't get him with Lily's consent. Frantic with jealousy as she was, she recognized that! Yet, over and over, during the week that followed that hour in the garden with Edith, she said to herself, "If Maurice had Jacky, Edith would be nothing to him." ... It was at this point that one day something made her add, "Suppose he had Lily, too?" Then he could have Jacky.

"If I were dead, he could marry Lily."

At first this was just one of those vague thoughts that blew through her mind, as straws and dead leaves blow down a dreary street. But this straw caught, so to speak, and more straws gathered and heaped about it. The idea lodged, and another idea lodged with it: If, to get his child, he married Jacky's mother, Edith would never reach him! And if, by dying, Eleanor gave Maurice his child, he would always love her for her gift; she would always be "wonderful." And Edith? Why, he couldn't, he couldn't-if his wife died to give him Jacky-think of Edith again! Jacky, Eleanor thought, viciously, "would slam the door in Edith's face!"

Perhaps, if Maurice had been at home, instead of being obliged to prolong that western business trip, the sanity of his presence would have swept the straws and dead leaves away and left Eleanor's mind bleak, of course, with disappointment about Jacky and dread of Edith-but sound. As it was, alone in her melancholy, uncomfortable house, tiny innumerable "reasons" for considering the one way by which Maurice could get Jacky, heaped and heaped above common sense: ten years ago Mrs. Newbolt said that if Eleanor had not "caught" Maurice when he was young, he would have taken Edith; that was a straw. Two years ago a woman in the street car offered her a seat, because she looked as old as her mother. Another straw! Lily supposed she was Maurice's mother! A straw.... Edith admitted-had impudently flung into Eleanor's face!-the confession that she was "in love with him!"-and Edith was to be in town for three months. Oh, what a sheaf of straws! Edith would see him constantly. She would "look at him"! Could Maurice stand that? Wouldn't what little love he felt for his old wife go down under the wicked assault of those "looks"?-unless he had Jacky! Jacky would "slam the door."

Eleanor said things like this many times a day. Straws! Straws! And they showed the way the wind was blowing. Sometimes, in the suffocating dust of fear that the wind raised she even forgot her purpose of making Maurice happy, in a violent urge to make it impossible for Edith Houghton to triumph over her. But the other thought-the crazy, nobler thought!-was, on the whole, dominant: "Maurice would be happy if he had a child. I couldn't give him a child of my own, but I can give him Jacky." Yet once in a while she balanced the advantages and disadvantages of the one way in which Jacky could be given: Lily? Could Maurice endure Lily? She thought of that parlor, of Lily's vulgarity, of the raucous note in her voice when those flashes of anger pierced like claws through the furry softness of her good nature; she thought of the reek of scent on the handkerchief. Could he endure Lily? Yet she was efficient; she would make him comfortable. "I never made him comfortable," she thought. "And he doesn't love her; so I wouldn't so terribly mind her being here-any more than I'd mind a housekeeper. But I wouldn't want her to call him 'Maurice.' I think I'll put that into my letter to him. I'll say that I will ask, as a last favor, that he will not let her call him 'Maurice.'"

For by this time she had added another straw to the pile of rubbish in her mind: she would write him a letter. In it she would tell him that she was going to ... die, so that he could marry Lily and have Jacky! Then came the mental postscript, which would not, of course, be written; she would make it possible for him to marry Lily-and impossible for him to marry Edith! And by and by she got so close to her mean and noble purpose-a gift in one dead hand and a sword in the other!-that she began to think of ways and means. How could she die? She couldn't buy morphine without a prescription, and she couldn't possibly get a prescription. But there were other things that people did,-dreadful things! She knew she couldn't do anything "dreadful." Maurice had a revolver in his bureau drawer, upstairs-but she didn't know how to make it "go off"; and if she had known, she couldn't do it; it would be "dreadful." Well; a rope? No! Horrible! She had once seen a picture ... she shuddered at the memory of that picture. That was impossible! Sometimes any way-every way!-seemed impossible. Once, wandering aimlessly about the thawing back yard, she stood for a long time at the iron gate, staring at the glimmer, a block away, of the river-"our river," Maurice used to call it. But in town, "their" river-flowing!-flowing! was filmed with oil, and washed against slimy piles, and carried a hideous flotsam of human rubbish; once down below the bridge she had seen a drowned cat slopping back and forth among orange skins and straw bottle covers. The river, in town, was as "dreadful" as those other impossible things! Back in the meadows it was different-brown and clear where it rippled over shallows and lisped around that strip of clean sand, and darkly smooth out in the deep current;-the deep current? Why! that was possible! Of course there were "things" in the water that she might step on-slimy, creeping things!-which she was so afraid of. She remembered how afraid she had been that night on the mountain, of snakes. But the water was clean.

She must have stood there a long time; the maids, in the basement laundry, said afterward that they saw her, her white hands clutching the rusty bars of the gate, looking down toward the river, for nearly an hour. Then Bingo whined, and she went into the house to comfort him; and as she stroked him gently, she said, "Yes, ... our river would be possible." But she would get so wet! "My skirts would be wet ..."

So three days went by in profound preoccupation. Her mind was a battlefield, over which, back and forth, reeling and trampling, Love and Jealousy-old enemies but now allies!-flung themselves against Reason, which had no support but Fear. Each day Maurice's friendly letters arrived; one of them-as Jealousy began to rout Reason and Love to cast out Fear-she actually forgot to open! Mrs. Newbolt called her up on the telephone once, and said, "Come 'round to dinner; my new cook is pretty poor, but she's better than yours."

Eleanor said she had a little cold. "Cold?" said Mrs. Newbolt. "My gracious! don't come near me! I used to tell your dear uncle I was more afraid of a cold than I was of Satan! He said a cold was Satan; and I said-" Eleanor hung up the receiver.

So she was alone-and the wind blew, and the straws and leaves danced over that battlefield of her empty mind, and she said:

"I'll give him Jacky," and then she said, "Our river." And then she said, "But I must hurry!" He had written that he might reach home by the end of the week. "He might come to-night! I must do it-before he comes home." She said that while the March dawn was gray against the windows of her bedroom, and the house was still. She lay in bed until, at six, she heard the creak of the attic stairs and Mary's step as she crept down to the kitchen, the silver basket clattering faintly on her arm. Then she rose and dressed; once she paused to look at herself in the glass: those gray hairs! ... Edith had called his attention to them so many years ago! It was a long time since it had been worth while to pull them out. ... All that morning she moved about the house like one in a dream. She was thinking what she would say in her letter to him, and wondering, now and then, vaguely, what it would be like, afterward? She ate no luncheon, though she sat down at the table. She just crumbled up a piece of bread; then rose, and went into the library to Maurice's desk... She sat there for a long time, making idl

e scratches on the blotting paper; her elbow on the desk, her forehead in her hand, she sat and scrawled his initials-and hers-and his. And then, after about an hour, she wrote:

... I want you to have Jacky. When I am dead you can get him, because you can marry Lily. Of course I oughtn't to have married you, but-

Here she paused for a long time.

I loved you. I'd rather she didn't call you Maurice. But I want you to have Jacky; so marry her, and you will have him. I am not jealous, you see. You won't call me jealous any more, will you? And, besides, I love little Jacky, too. See that he has music lessons.

Another pause... Many thoughts... Many straws and dead leaves... "Edith will never enter the house, if Lily is here-with Jacky.... Oh-I hate her."

You will believe I love you, won't you, darling? I wish I hadn't married you; I didn't mean to do you any harm. I just loved you, and I thought I could make you happy. I know now that I didn't. Forgive me, darling, for marrying you...

Again a long pause....

I don't mind dying at all, if I can give you what you want. And I don't mind your marrying Lily. I am sure she can make good cake-tell her to try that chocolate cake you liked so much. I tried it twice, but it was heavy. I forgot the baking powder. Make her call you "Mr. Curtis." Oh, Maurice-you will believe I love you?-even if I am-

She put her pen down and buried her face in her arms folded on his desk; she couldn't seem to write that word of three letters which she had supposed summed up the tragedy, begun on that June day in the field and ending, she told herself, on this March day, in the same place. So, by and by, instead of writing "old," she wrote

"a poor housekeeper."

Then she pondered on how she should sign the letter, and after a while she wrote:


She looked at the radiant word, and then kissed it. By and by she got up-with difficulty, for she had sat there so long that she was stiff in every joint-and going to her own desk, she hunted about in it for that little envelope, which, for nearly twelve of the fifty golden years which were to find them in "their field," had held the circle of braided grass. When she opened it, and slid the ring out into the palm of her hand it crumbled into dust. She debated putting it back into the envelope and inclosing it in her letter? But a rush of tenderness for Maurice made her say: "No! It might hurt him." So she dropped it down behind the logs in the fireplace. "When the fire is lighted it will burn up." Lily's scented handkerchief had turned to ashes there, too. Then she folded the letter, slipped it into an envelope, sealed it, addressed it, and put it in her desk. "He'll find it," she thought, "afterward." Find it,-and know how much she loved him!-the words were like wine to her. Then she looked at the clock and was startled to see that it was five. She must hurry! He might come home and stop her!...

She was perfectly calm; she put on her coat and hat and opened the front door; then saw the gleam of lights on the wet pavement and felt the March drizzle in her face; she reflected that it would be very wet in the meadow, and went back for her rubbers.

When the car came banging cheerfully along, she boarded it and sat so that she would be able to see Lily's house. "She's getting his supper," Eleanor thought; "dear little Jacky! Well, he will be having his supper with Maurice pretty soon! I wonder how she'll get along with Mary? Mary will call her 'Mrs. Curtis,' Mary would leave in a minute if she knew what kind of a person 'Mrs. Curtis' was!" She smiled at that; it pleased her. "But she mustn't call him 'Maurice,'" she thought; "I won't permit that!"

The car stopped, and all the other passengers got out. Eleanor vaguely watched the conductor pull the trolley pole round for the return trip; then she rose hurriedly. As she started along the road toward the meadow she thought. "I can walk into the water; I never could jump in! But it will be easy to wade in." That made her think of the picnic, and the wading, and how Maurice had tied Edith's shoestrings; and with that came a surge of triumph. "When he reads my letter, and knows how much I love him, he'll forget her. And when she hears he has married Lily, she'll stop making love to him by getting him to tie her shoestrings!"

It was quite dark by this time, and chilly; she had meant to sit down for a while, with her back against the locust tree, and think how, at last, he was going to realize her love! But when she reached the bank of the river she stooped and felt the winter-bleached grass, and found it so wet with the small, fine rain which had begun to fall, that she was afraid to sit down. "I'd add to my cold," she thought. So she stood there a long time, looking at the river, leaden now in the twilight. "How it glittered that day!" she thought. Suddenly, on a soft wind of memory, she seemed to smell the warm fragrance of the clover, and hear again her own voice, singing in the sunshine-

"Through the clear windows of the morning!"

"I'll leave my coat on the bank," she said; "but I'll wear my hat; it will keep my hair from getting messy. ... Oh, Maurice mustn't let her call him 'Maurice'! I wish I'd made that clearer in my letter. Why didn't I tell him to give her that five cents? ... I wonder how many 'minutes' we have had now? We had had fifty-four, that Day. I wish I had calculated, and put the number in the letter. No, that might have made him feel badly. I don't want to hurt him; I only want him to know that I love him enough to die to make him happy. Oh-will it be cold?"

It was then that she took, slowly, one step-and stood still. And another-and paused. Her heart began to pound suffocatingly in her throat, and suddenly she knew that she was afraid! She had not known it; fear had not entered into her plans; just love-and Maurice; just hate-and Edith! Nor had "Right" or "Wrong" occurred to her. Now, old instincts rose up. People called this "wicked"? So, if she was going to do it, she must do it quickly! She mustn't get to thinking or she might be afraid to do it, because it would be "wicked." She unfastened her coat, then fumbled with her hat, pinning it on firmly; she was saying, aloud: "Oh-oh-oh-it's wicked. But I must. Oh-my skirts will get wet ... 'Kiss thy perfumed garments' ... No; I'll hold them up. Oh-oh-" And as she spoke her crazy purpose drove her forward; she held back against it-but, like the pressure of a hand upon her shoulder, it pushed her on down the bank-slowly-slowly-her heels digging into the crumbling clay, her hands clutching now at a tuft of grass, now at a drooping branch; she was drawing quick breaths of terror, and talking, in little gasps, aloud: "He'll forget Edith. He'll have Jacky. He'll know how much I love him...." So, over the pebbles, out on to the spit of sand; on-on-until she reached the river's edge. She stood there for a minute, listening to the lisping chatter of the current. Very slowly, she stepped in, and was ankle deep in shallow water,-then stopped short-the water soaked through her shoes, and suddenly she felt it, like circling ice, around her ankles! Aloud, she said, "Maurice,-I give you Jacky. But don't let Lily call you-" She stepped on, into the stream; one step-two-three. It was still shallow. "Why doesn't it get deep?" she said, angrily; another step and the water was halfway to her knees; she felt the force of the current and swayed a little; still another step-above her knees now! and the rip, tugging and pulling at her floating skirts. It was at the next step that she slipped, staggered, fell full length-felt the water gushing into the neck of her dress, running down her back, flowing between her breasts; felt her sleeves drenched against her arms; she sprang up, fell again, her head under water, her face scraping the pebbly sharpness of the river bed,-again got on to her feet and ran choking and coughing, stumbling and slipping, back to the sand-spit, and the shore. There she stood, soaking wet, gasping. Her hat was gone, her hair dripping about her face. "I can't," she said.

She climbed up the bank, catching at the grass and twigs, and feeling her tears running hot over the icy wetness of her cheeks. When she reached the top she picked up her coat with numb, shaking hands and, shivering violently, put it on with a passionate desire for warmth.

"I tried; I tried," she said; "but-I can't!"

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