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The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 23574

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Maurice, followed by telegrams that never quite overtook him, did, some forty-eight hours later, get the news that Eleanor had "had an accident," and was at Mrs. Newbolt's, who thought he had "better return immediately." His business was not quite finished, but it did not need Mr. Weston's laconic wire, "Drop Greenleaf matters and come back," to start him on the next train for Mercer. He had been away nearly two weeks-two terrible weeks, of facing himself; two weeks of rebellion, and submission; of tumultuous despair and quiet acceptance. He had looked faithfully-and very shrewdly-into the "Greenleaf matters"; he had turned one or two sharp corners, with entirely honest cleverness, and he was taking back to Mercer some concessions which old Weston had slipped up on! Yes, he had done a darned good job, he told himself, lounging in the smoking compartment of one parlor car or another, or strolling up and down station platforms for a breath of air. And all the while that he was on the Greenleaf job-in Pullmans, sitting in hotel lobbies writing letters, looking through title and probate records-his own affairs raced and raged in his thoughts; they were summed up in one word: "Edith." He could not get away from Edith! He tripped a Greenleaf trustee into an admission (and he thought, "so long as she never suspects that I love her, there's no harm in going along as we always have"). Then he conceded a point to the Greenleaf interests (and said to himself, "her hair on her shoulders that day on the lawn was like a nimbus around the head of a saint. How she'd hate that word 'saint'!"). His chuckle made one of the Greenleaf heirs think that Weston's representative was a good sort;-"pleasant fellow!" But Maurice, looking "pleasant," was thinking: "I'd about sell my soul to kiss her hair ... Oh, I must stop this kind of thing! I swear it's worse than the Lily and Jacky business...." Then he signed a deed, and the Greenleaf people felt they had made a good thing of it-but Maurice's telegram that the deed was signed, caused rejoicing in the Weston office! "Curtis got ahead of 'em!" said Mr. Weston. While he was writing that triumphant telegram Maurice was wondering: "Was John Bennett a complete idiot? ... If things had been different would Edith have ... cared?" For himself, he, personally, didn't care "a damn," whether Weston got ahead of Greenleaf or Greenleaf beat Weston. His own affairs engrossed him: "my job," he was telling himself, "is to see that Eleanor doesn't suffer any more, poor girl! And Edith shall never know. And I'll make a decent man of Jacky-not a fool, like his father." So he wrote his victorious dispatch, and the Weston office congratulated itself.

Maurice had been very grateful for his fortnight of absence from everybody, except the Greenleaf heirs; grateful for a solitude of trains and lawyers' offices. Because, in solitude, he could, with entirely hopeless courage, face the future. He was facing it unswervingly the day he reached Chicago, where he was to get some final signatures; he came into the warm lobby of the hotel, glad to escape the rampaging lake wind, and while he was registering the hotel clerk produced the telegrams which had been held for him. The first, from Mr. Weston, "Drop Greenleaf," bewildered him until he read the other, "Eleanor has had an accident." Then he ran his pen through his name, asked for a time-table, and sent a peremptory wire to Mrs. Newbolt saying that he was on his way home, and asking that full particulars be telegraphed to him at a certain point on his journey. "Let me know just what happened, and how she is," he telegraphed. "It must be serious," he thought, "to send for me!"

It was hardly an hour before he was on a train for another day of travel, during which he experienced the irritation common to all of us when we receive an alarming dispatch, devoid of details. "Economizing on ten cents! What kind of an 'accident'? How serious is it? When was it? Why didn't they let me know before?" and so on; all the futile, anxious, angry questions which a man asks himself under such circumstances. But suddenly, while he was asking these questions, another question whispered in his mind; a question to which he would not listen, and which he refused to answer; but again and again, over and over, it repeated itself, coming, it seemed, on the rhythmical roll of the wheels-the wheels which were taking him back to Eleanor! "If-if-if-" the wheels hammered out; "if anything happens to Eleanor-"? He never finished that sentence, but the beginning of it actually frightened him. "Am I as low as this?" he said, frantically, "speculating on the possibility of anything happening to her?" But he was not so low as that-he only heard the jar of the wheels: "If-if-if-if-"

When he reached the station to which he had told Mrs. Newbolt to reply, he rushed out of the car into the telegraph office, and clutched at the message before the operator could put it into its flimsy brown envelope; as he read it he said under his breath, "Thank God!" It was from Mary Houghton:

Accident slight. Slipped into water. All right now except bad cold.

Maurice's hand shook as he folded the message and stuffed it into his pocket. He had the sense of having escaped from a terror-the terror of intolerable remorse. For if she had not been "all right," if, instead of just "a bad cold," the dispatch had said "something had happened"!-then, for all the rest of his life he would have had to remember how the wheels had beaten out that terrible refrain: "If-if-if-"

So he said, "Thank God."

All that day, while Maurice was hurrying back to Mercer, Eleanor lay very still, and when Mrs. Newbolt or Mrs. Houghton came into the room she closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep. Edith did not come into the room; so, in a hazy way, Eleanor took it for granted that she had left the house. "I should think she would!" Eleanor thought; "she could hardly have the face to stay in the same house with me." But she did not think much about Edith; she was absorbed in deciding what she should say to Maurice. Should she tell him the truth?-or some silly story of a walk to their meadow? The two alternatives flew back and forth in her mind like shuttlecocks. There was one thing she felt sure of: that letter-which Mrs. Houghton had brought from her desk, which Maurice was to have read when she had done what she set out to do, but which now she kept clutched in her hand, or hidden under her pillow-Maurice must not see that letter! If he read it, now, while she was (she told herself) still half sick from those drenched hours of the trolley ride and the dark wanderings from Mrs. O'Brien's to Mrs. Newbolt's, the whole thing would seem simply ridiculous. Some time, he must know that she loved him enough to buy Jacky for him, by dying-or trying to die! She would tell him, some time; because her purpose (even if it had failed) would measure the heights and depths of her love as nothing else could; but he must not know it now, because she hadn't carried it out. That first night, when she had found herself safe and warm (oh, warm! She had thought she never would be warm any more!)-when she had found herself in Mrs. Newbolt's spare room in the four-poster with its chintz hangings and its great soft pillows, she had been glad she had not carried it out. Glad not to be dead. As she lay there, shivering slowly into delicious comfort, and fending off Mrs. Newbolt's distracted questions, she had had occasional moments of a sense of danger escaped; perhaps it would have been wrong to-to lie down there in the river? People call it wicked Mrs. Newbolt, for a single suspicious instant ("She forgot it right off," Eleanor said; "she just thought we'd quarreled!"); but Mrs. Newbolt had said it was "wicked." "But I didn't do it!" Eleanor told herself in a rush of gratitude. She hadn't been "wicked"! Instead, she was in Mrs. Newbolt's spare room, looking dreamily at the old French clock on the mantelpiece, whose tarnished gilt face glimmered between two slender black-marble columns; sometimes she counted the tick-tock of the slowly swinging pendulum; sometimes, toward dawn, she watched the foggy yellow daylight peer between the red rep curtains; but counting, and looking, and drowsing, she was glad to be alive. It was not until the next afternoon that she began to be faintly mortified at being alive. It was then that she had felt that she must get that letter-Maurice mustn't see it! Little by little, humiliation at her failure to be heroic, grew acute. Maurice wouldn't know that she loved him enough to give him Jacky; he would just know that she was silly. She had got wet; and had a cold in her head. Snuffles-not Death. He might-laugh!... It was then that she implored Mrs. Houghton to get the letter out of her desk.

Yet when it was given to her she held it in her hand under the bedclothes, saying to herself that she would not destroy it, yet, because, even though she had failed, there might come a time when it would prove to Maurice how much she loved him. She was so absorbed in this thought that she did not grieve much for Bingo. "Poor little Bingo," she said, vaguely, when Mrs. Houghton told her that the little dog was dead; "he was so jealous." Now, with Maurice coming nearer every hour, she could not think of Bingo; she was face to face with a decision! What should she tell him about the "accident"?

It was in the afternoon of the day that Maurice was to arrive,-he had telegraphed that he would reach Mercer in the evening;-that she had a sudden panic about Edith. "She was here that night and saw me. I know she laughed at me because I hadn't any hat on! She may-suspect? If she does, she'll tell him! What shall I do to stop her?" She couldn't think of any way to stop her! She couldn't hold her thoughts steady enough to reach a decision. First would come gladness of her own comfort and safety, and the warm, warm bed; then shame, that she had faltered and run away from a chance to do a great thing for Maurice; then terror that Edith would make her ridiculous to Maurice. Then all these thoughts would whirl about, run backward: First, terror of Edith! then shame! then comfort! Suddenly the terror thought held fast with a question. "Suppose I make her promise not to tell Maurice anything? I think she would keep a promise...." It would be dreadful to ask the favor of secrecy of Edith-just as she had asked the same sort of favor of Lily-but to seem silly to Maurice would be more dreadful than to ask a favor! She held to this purpose of humiliating self-protection, long enough to ask Mrs. Houghton when Edith was coming down from Green Hill.

"Why, she's here, now, in the house!" Edith's mother said.

"Here?" Eleanor said, despairingly. If Edith was here, then Maurice, when he came, would see her and she would tell him! "She would make a funny story of it," Eleanor thought; "I know her! She would make him laugh. I can't bear it! ... I would like to speak to Edith," she told Mrs. Houghton, faintly.

Edith, summoned by her mother, stood for a rigid moment outside Eleanor's door, trying to get herself in hand. In these anxious days, Edith's youth had been threatened by assailing waves of a remorse that at times would have engulfed it altogether, but for that unflinching reasonableness which made her the girl she was. "It may be," Edith had said to herself; "it may be that what I said to her in the garden made her so angry that she tried to kill herself; but why should it have made her angry? I didn't injure her. Besides, she dragged it out of me! I couldn't lie. She said, 'You love him.' I would not lie, and say I didn't! But what harm did it do her?" So she reasoned; but reason did not keep her

from suffering. "Did I drive her to it?" Edith said, over and over. So when her mother told her Eleanor wanted to speak to her, she grew a little pale. When she entered Eleanor's room her heart was beating so hard she felt smothered, but she was perfectly matter of fact. "Anything I can do for you, Eleanor?" she said. She stood at the foot of the bed, holding on to the carved bed post.

Eleanor looked at her for a silent moment, then gathered herself together. "Edith," she said (she was very hoarse and spoke with difficulty), "I don't want to bother Maurice about-about my accident. So I am going to ask you, please, not to refer to it to him. Not to tell him anything about it. Anything. Promise me."

"Of course I won't!" Edith said. As she spoke she forgot herself in pity for the scared, haggard face. ("Oh, was it my fault?" she thought, with a real pang.) And before she knew it her coldness was all gone and she was at Eleanor's side; she sat down on the edge of the bed and caught her hand impulsively. "Eleanor," she said, "I've been awfully unhappy, for fear anything I said-that morning-troubled you? Of course there was no sense in talking that way, for either of us. So please forgive me! Was it what I said, that made you-that bothered you, I mean? I'm so unhappy," Edith said, and caught her lip between her teeth to keep it steady; her eyes were bright with tears. "Eleanor, truly I am nothing to-to anybody. Nobody cares a copper for me! Do be kind to me. Oh-I've been awfully unhappy; and I'm so glad you're better."

Instantly the smoldering fire broke into flame: "I'm not better," Eleanor said, "and you wouldn't be glad if I were."

It was as if she struck her hand upon those generous young lips. Edith sprang to her feet. "Eleanor!"

Eleanor sat up in bed, her hands behind her, propping her up; her cheeks were dully red, her eyes glowing. "All this talk about making me unhappy means nothing at all. You have always made me unhappy. And as for anybody's caring for you-they don't; you are quite right about that. Quite right! And I want to tell you something else: If anything happens to me, I want Maurice to marry again. But he won't marry you."

"Eleanor," Edith said, "you wouldn't say such a thing, or think such a thing, if you weren't sick. I'm sorry I came in. I'll go right away, and-"

"No," she said; "don't go away,"-her arms had begun to tremble with strain of supporting her, she spoke in whispered gasps: "I am going to speak," she said; "I prefer to speak. I want you to know that if I die-"

"You are not going to die! You are going to get well."

"Will you please not keep interrupting? It is so hard for me to get my breath. I want you to know that he will marry-that Dale woman. Because it is right that he should. Because of the little boy. His little boy."

Edith was dumb.

"So you see, he can't marry you," Eleanor said, and fell back on her pillows, her eyes half closed.

There was a long silence, just the ticking of the Empire clock and the faint snapping of the fire. Edith felt as if some iron hand had gripped her throat. For a moment it was impossible for her to speak; then the words came quietly: "Eleanor, I'm glad you told me this. You are going to get well, and I'm glad, glad that you are! But I must tell you: If anything had happened to you, I would have moved heaven and earth to have kept Maurice from marrying that woman. Oh, Eleanor, how can you say you love him, and yet plan such terrible unhappiness for him?"

She turned and ran out of the room, up another flight of stairs to her own bedroom. There she fell down on her bed and lay tense and rigid, her face hidden in her hands. This, then, was what Maurice had meant? She saw again the wood path, and the tall fern breaking under Maurice's racquet; she saw the flecks of sunshine on the moss-she heard him say he "hadn't played the game with Eleanor." Oh, he hadn't, he hadn't! Then she thought of the Dale woman. The accident on the river. The stumble at the gate and of Maurice's child in Lily's arms. "Oh, poor Eleanor! poor Eleanor! ... All the same, she is wicked, to be so cruel to him. She is taking her revenge. Jealousy has made her wicked. But, oh, I wish I hadn't hurt her in the garden! But how could Maurice-that little, common woman! How could he?" She shook with sobs: "Poor, poor Eleanor ..."

Eleanor, on her big bed, lay panting with anger and fright. "Now she'll know I'm hiding something from him!" she thought; "I've put myself in her power by having a secret with her; just as I put myself in Lily's power by asking her not to tell Maurice I had been there. Well, Edith is in my power!-because I've made her know he'll never care for her. And she'll keep her word; she'll not tell him about the river."

The relief of this was so great that she could almost forget her humiliation; she gave herself up to thinking what she herself must do to keep Maurice in ignorance. "Auntie will be sure to say something. But he knows how silly she is. She thought we'd quarreled, and that I had tried ... I might tell Maurice that? And he'll make fun of her, and won't believe anything she says! I might say that I went out to-to see our river, and slipped and got wet, and that Auntie thought we'd quarreled, and that I had ... had tried to ... to-And he'll say, 'What a joke!' But maybe he'll say, 'Why did you go out to Medfield so late?' And I'll say, 'Oh, well, I got delayed.' ... Yes, that's the thing to do."

So, around and around, her poor, frantic thoughts raced and trampled one another. When Mrs. Newbolt interrupted them with a tray and some supper, Eleanor, with eyes closed, motioned her away: "My head aches. I can't eat anything. I'm going to try and get a little sleep."

By and by, through sheer fatigue, she did drowse, and when the wheels of Maurice's cab grated against the curb, she was asleep.

Edith, upstairs in her own room, heard the front door close sharply. "I can't see him!" she said; "I mustn't see him." But she wanted to see him; she wanted to say to him: "Maurice, you can make it all up to Eleanor! You can make her happy. Don't despair about it-we'll all help you make it up to her!" She wanted to say: " Oh,Maurice, you will conquer. I know you will!" If she could only see him and tell him these things! "If I didn't love him, I could," she thought....

Maurice came hurrying into the parlor, with the anxious, "How is she?" on his lips; and Mrs. Newbolt and Mrs. Houghton were full of reassurances, and suggestions of food, which he negatived promptly. "Tell me about Eleanor! What happened?"

"She's asleep," Mrs. Newbolt said. "You must have something to eat-" She was in such a panic of uncertainty as to what must and must not be said to Maurice that she clutched at supper as a perfectly safe topic. "I-I-I'll go and see about your supper," said Mrs. Newbolt, and trundled off to hide herself in the dining room.

Mary Houghton could not hide, but she would have been glad to! "Eleanor is sleepy, now, Maurice," she said; "but she'll want to have just a glimpse of you-"

"I'll go right up!"

"Maurice, wait one minute. If I were you, I wouldn't get Eleanor to talking, to-night; she's a little feverish-"

"Mrs. Houghton!" he broke in, "Eleanor's all right, isn't she?" His face was furrowed with alarm. (If that wicked rhythm of the wheels should begin again!)

"Oh yes; I-I think so. She hasn't quite got over the shock yet, but-"

"What shock? Nobody's told me yet what it was! Your dispatch only said she'd slipped into the water. What water?"

"We don't really know," said Mrs. Houghton; "and she mustn't be worried with questions, the doctor says. You see, she got dripping wet, somehow, and then had a long trolley ride-and she had a cold to start with-"

"I'll just crawl upstairs, and see if she's awake," said Maurice. "I won't disturb her."

As he started softly upstairs, Mrs. Newbolt opened the dining-room door a crack, and peered in at Mary Houghton. "Did you tell him?" she said, in a wheezing whisper.

Mrs. Houghton shook her head.

"Well, I can tell you who won't tell him," said Eleanor's aunt; "me! To tell a man that his wife-"

"Hush-sh!" said Mrs. Houghton; "he's coming downstairs. Besides, we don't know that she did-"

The dining-room door closed softly on the whispered words: "Puffect nonsense. Of course we know."

Maurice, tiptoeing into Eleanor's room, thought she was asleep, and was backing out again, when she opened drowsy eyes and said, faintly, "Hullo."

He bent over to kiss her. "Well, you're a great girl, to cut up like this when I'm away from home!"

She smiled, closed her eyes, and he tiptoed out of the room....

Back again in the parlor, he began, "Mrs. Houghton, for Heaven's sake, tell me the whole thing!" He wasn't anxious now; as far as he could see, Eleanor was "all right"-just sleepy. But what on earth-

She told him what she knew; what she suspected, she kept to herself. But she might as well have told it all. For, as he listened, his face darkened with understanding.

"The river? In Medfield? But, why-?"

"Edith says you and she had a good deal of sentiment about the river, and-"

"At six o'clock, on a March evening?" said Maurice. He put his hands in his pockets and began to walk up and down. Mrs. Houghton had nothing more to say; the room was so silent that the dining-room door opened a furtive crack-then closed quickly! Mrs. Houghton began to talk about Maurice's journey, and Maurice asked whether Eleanor could be taken home the next day-at which the dining-room door opened broadly, and Mrs. Newbolt said:

"If you ask me, I'd say 'no'! If you want to know what I think, I think she's got a temperature! And she oughtn't to stir out of this house till it's normal."

"Mrs. Newbolt," said Maurice, pausing in his tramping up and down the room; "why did Eleanor go out to Medfield?"

"Perhaps she was lookin' for a cook! I-I think I'll go to bed!" said Mrs. Newbolt-and almost ran out of the room.

Maurice looked down at Mrs. Houghton, and laughed, grimly: "You might as well tell me?"

"My dear fellow, we have nothing to tell! We don't know anything-except that Eleanor has added to her cold, and is very nervous," She paused; could she give him an idea of the extent of Eleanor's "nervousness," and yet not tell him what they all felt sure of? "Why, Maurice," she said; "just to show you how hysterical Eleanor is, she told me-" Mrs. Houghton dropped her voice, and looked toward the dining-room door; but Mrs. Newbolt's ponderous step made itself heard overhead. "She said-Oh, Maurice, this is too foolish to repeat; but it just shows how Eleanor loves you. She implied that she didn't want to get well, so that you could-could get the little boy, by marrying his mother!"

Maurice sat down and stared at her, open-mouthed. "Marry? I, marry Lily?" He actually gasped under the impact of a perfectly new idea; then he said, very softly, "Good God."

Mrs. Houghton nodded. "Her one thought," she said (praying that, without breaking her word to Eleanor, and betraying what was so terribly Eleanor's own affair, she might make Maurice's heart so ready for the pathos that he would not be repelled by the folly), "her one desire is that you should have your little boy."

Maurice walked over to the fireplace and kicked two charred pieces of wood together between the fire irons. In the crash of Mary Houghton's calm words, the rhythm of the wheels was permanently silenced.

It was about four o'clock the next morning that the change came: Eleanor had a violent chill.

"I thought we were out of the woods," the doctor said, frowning; "but I guess I was too previous. There's a spot in the left lung, Mr. Curtis."

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