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   Chapter 34 No.34

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 12423

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


It was after ten o'clock that night when Eleanor's icy fingers fumbled at Mrs. Newbolt's doorbell. The ring was not heard at first, because her aunt and Edith Houghton and Johnny Bennett were celebrating his departure the next day for South America, by making a Welsh rabbit in a chafing dish before the parlor fire. Mrs. Newbolt, entering into the occasion with voluble reminiscences, was having a very good time. She liked Youth, and she liked Welsh rabbits, and she liked an audience; and she had all three! Then the doorbell rang. And again.

"For Heaven's sake!" said Mrs. Newbolt; "at this time of night! Johnny, the girls have gone to bed; you go and answer it, like a good boy."

"Dump in some more beer, Edith," Johnny commanded, and went out into the hall, whistling. A moment later the other two heard his startled voice, "Why, come right in!" There was no reply, just shuffling steps; then Eleanor, silent, without any hat, her hair plastered down her ghastly cheeks, her face bruised and soiled with sand, stood in the doorway, the astonished John Bennett behind her. Everybody spoke at once:

"Eleanor! What has happened?"

"Eleanor! Where is your hat?"

"Good gracious! Eleanor-"

She was perfectly still. Just looking at them, during that blank moment before everything became a confusion of jostling assistance. Edith rushed to help her off with her coat. Johnny said, "Mrs. Newbolt, where can I get some whisky?" Mrs. Newbolt felt the soaking skirt, and tried to unfasten the belt so that the wet mass might fall to the floor.

Eleanor was rigid. "Get a doctor!" Edith commanded.

Johnny ran to the telephone.

"No," Eleanor whispered.

But nobody paid any attention to her. Johnny, at the telephone, was telling Mrs. Newbolt's doctor to hurry! Mrs. Newbolt herself had run, wheezing, to open the spare-room bed and get out extra blankets, and fill hot-water bottles; then, somehow or other, she and Edith got Eleanor upstairs, undressed her, put her into the big four-poster, and held a tumbler of hot whisky and water to her lips. By the time Doctor James arrived she had begun to shiver violently; but she was still silent. The trolley ride into town, with staring passengers and a conductor who thought she had been drinking, and tried to be jocose, had chilled her to the bone, and the gradual dulling of thought had left only one thing clear to her: She mustn't go home, because Maurice might possibly be there! And if he was, then he would know! So she must go-somewhere. She went first to Mrs. O'Brien's, climbing the three long flights of stairs and feeling her way along dark entries to the old woman's door. She stood there shuddering and knocking; a single gas jet, wavering in the draughty entry, made her shadow lurch on the cracked plaster of the wall; it occurred to her that she would like to put her frozen hands around the little flame to warm them. Then she knocked again. There was no answer, so, shaking from head to foot, she felt her way downstairs again to the street, where the reflection of an occasional gas lamp gleamed and flickered on the wet asphalt. "I'll go to Auntie's," she thought.

She had just one purpose-to get warm! But she was so dazed that she could never remember how she reached Mrs. Newbolt's; probably she walked, for there were no cabs in that part of town and no car line passed Mrs. Newbolt's door. The time after she left Mrs. O'Brien's was a blank. Even when she had swallowed the hot whisky, and began to feel warmer, she was still mentally benumbed, and couldn't remember what she had done. She did not notice Johnny Bennett; she saw Edith, but did not, apparently, understand that she was staying in the house. When the doctor came she was as silent to him as to everybody else.

He asked no questions. "Keep her warm," he said, "and don't talk to her."

Mrs. Newbolt, going to the door with him, palpitating with fright, said, "We don't know a thing more about what's happened than you do! She just appeared, drippin', wet!"

"She has evidently fallen into some water," he said; "but I wouldn't ask her about it, yet. Of course we don't know what the result will be, Mrs. Newbolt. I can't help saying I'm anxious. Mr. Curtis had better be sent for. Telegraph him in the morning." He went off, thinking to himself, "She must have gone into the country to do it. If she'd tried the river, here, and scrambled out, she wouldn't have been so frightfully chilled. I wonder what's up?"

Everybody wondered what was up, but Eleanor did not enlighten them; so the three interrupted revelers could do nothing but think. Johnny's thoughts, as he sat down in the parlor among the Welsh-rabbit plates, keeping the fire up, and waiting in case he might be needed, were even briefer than the doctor's: "Tried to commit suicide."

Edith, standing in the upper hall, listening to Mrs. Newbolt at Eleanor's bedside, exclaiming, and repeating her dear mother's ideas about catching cold, and offering more hot-water bottles, had her thoughts: "I won't go into the room-she would hate to see me! The doctor said she had fallen into some water. Did she-do it on purpose? Oh, was it my fault?" Edith's heart pounded with terror: "Was it what I said to her in the garden that made her do it?"

Mrs. Newbolt, in a blue-flannel dressing gown, and in and out of the spare room with sibilant whispers of anxiety, had, for once, more thoughts than words; her words were only, "I've always expected it!" But her thoughts would have filled volumes! Mrs. Newbolt had put her hair in order for the night, and now her crimping pins made the shadow of her head, bobbing on the ceiling, look like a gigantic spider.

Eleanor had just one hazy thought: "I tried ... I tried-and I failed."

Other people, however, didn't feel so sure that she had failed. She "looks like death," Mrs. Newbolt told Edith the next morning. "We've got to find Maurice! Edith, why do you suppose she-did it?"

"Oh, but she didn't!" Edith said. "What sense would there be-"

"Don't talk about 'sense'! Eleanor never had any. I've telegraphed your mother to come. I wonder how Bingo is? She understands her. The ashman has broken my new ash barrel; I don

't know what this country is comin' to!"

Then she went upstairs to try to understand Eleanor herself. "Eleanor, what happened?"

"Nothing. I'm going home this afternoon."

"Indeed you are not! You're not goin' out of this house till Maurice comes and gets you! What happened?" she demanded again.

"I fell. Into some water."

"How could you 'fall'? And what 'water'?"

"I had gone out to the river-up in Medfield. To-take a walk; and I ... slipped...."

"Now, Eleanor, look here; if I have a virtue, it's candor, and I'll tell you why; it saves time. That's what my dear father used to say: 'Lyin' wastes time.' I know what you tried to do; and it was very wicked."

"But I didn't do it!"

"You tried to. If you and Maurice have quarreled, I'll stand by you."

Eleanor covered her face with her hands-and Mrs. Newbolt burst out, "He's treated you badly! You needn't try to deceive me,-he's been flirtin' with some woman?" Her pale, prominent eyes snapped with anger.

"Oh, Auntie, don't! He hasn't! Only, I-wanted to make him happier; and so I-" She broke into furious crying. Despairing crying.

Instantly Mrs. Newbolt was all frightened solicitude. "There! Don't cry! Have a hot-water bag. They say there's a new kind on the market. I must get a new pair of rubbers. Your face is awfully bruised. He's puffectly happy! He worships the ground you walk on! Eleanor, don't cry. How's your cold? The ashman-"

Eleanor, gasping, said her cold was better, and repeated her determination of going home.

It was the doctor-dropping in, he said, to make sure Mrs. Curtis was none the worse for her "accident"-who put a stop to that.

"I slipped and fell," Eleanor told him; she was very hoarse.

He said yes, he understood. "But you got badly chilled, and you had a cold to start with. So you must lie low for two or three days. When will Mr. Curtis be back?"

Eleanor said she didn't know; all she knew was she didn't want him sent for. She was "all right."

But of course he had been sent for! "I don't know that it was really necessary," Mrs. Newbolt told Mrs. Houghton, who appeared late in the afternoon; "but I wasn't goin' to take the responsibility-"

"Of course not!" Mrs. Houghton said. "Mr. Weston has telegraphed him, too, I hope?" Then, before taking her things off, she went upstairs to Eleanor. "Well!" she said, "I hear you had an accident? Sensible girl, to stay in bed!" She took Eleanor's hand, and its hot tremor made her look keenly at the haggard face on the pillow.

"Oh," Eleanor said, with a gasp of relief, "I'm so glad you're here! There are some things I want attended to. I owe-I mean, somebody paid my car fare. And I must send it to her! And then I want something from my desk; but I can't have Bridget get it, and I don't want to ask Auntie to. It's-it's a letter to Maurice. I wanted to tell him something.... But I've changed my mind. I don't want him to see it. He mustn't see it! Oh, Mrs. Houghton, would you get it for me? I'd be so grateful! ... And then,-oh, that five cents! I don't know how I'm going to send it to her-"

"Tell me who it is, and I'll get it to her; and I'll get the letter," Mary Houghton told her; and went on with the usual sick-room encouragement: "The doctor says you are better. But you must hurry and get well, so as to help Maurice with the little boy!"

Her words were like a push against some tottering barrier.

"I tried to help him; I tried to get Jacky! I went to the woman's, but she wouldn't give him to me! I tried-so hard. But she wouldn't! She paid my car fare-"

Mrs. Houghton bent over and kissed her: "Tell me about it, dear; perhaps I can help."

"There is no help! ... She won't give him up. She insisted on coming home with me, and she paid my car fare! Then I thought, if-I were not alive, Maurice could get him, because he could marry her ..."

Instantly, with a thrill of horror and admiration, Mrs. Houghton understood the "accident"! "Eleanor! What a mad, mad thought! As if you could help Maurice by giving him a great grief! Oh, I do thank God he has been spared anything so terrible!"

"But," Eleanor said, excitedly, "if I were dead, it would be his duty to marry her, wouldn't it? Jacky is his child! Oughtn't he to marry Jacky's mother? Oh, Mrs. Houghton, I owe her five cents-"

The older woman was trembling, but she spoke calmly: "Eleanor, dear, you must live for Maurice, not-die for him."

"Promise me," said Eleanor, "you won't tell him?"

"Of course I won't!" said Mrs. Houghton, with elaborate cheerfulness. She kissed her, and went downstairs, feeling very queer in her knees. She paused at the parlor door to say to Mrs. Newbolt and Edith that she was going out to do an errand for Eleanor; "I hope Maurice will get back soon," she said. "I don't like Eleanor's looks." Then she went to get that letter which Maurice "must not see." As she walked along the street she was still tingling with the shock of having her own theories brought home to her. "Thank God," Mary Houghton said, "that nothing happened!"

The maid who opened the door at Maurice's house was evidently excited, but not about her mistress. "Oh, Mrs. Houghton!" she said, "we done our best, but he wouldn't take a bite!-and I declare I don't know what Mrs. Curtis will say. He just wouldn't eat, and this morning he up and died-and me offering him a chop!" Bridget wept with real distress. "Mrs. Houghton, please tell her we done our best; he just smelled his chop-and died. You see, he hasn't eat a thing, without she gave it to him, for-oh, more 'n a month!"

Mary Houghton went into the library, where the fire was out, and the dust on tables and chairs bore witness to the fact that Bridget had devoted herself to Bingo; the room was gloomy, and smelled of soot. Little Bingo lay, stiff and chill, on the sofa; on a plate beside him was a chop rimmed in cold grease,-poor little, loving, jealous, old Bingo! "I hope it won't upset Mrs. Curtis," Mrs. Houghton told the maid; then gave directions about the stark little body. She found the letter in Eleanor's desk, and went back to Mrs. Newbolt's. "Love," she thought, "is as strong as death; stronger! Bingo-and Eleanor."

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