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   Chapter 36 No.36

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 20485

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


When Maurice saw his wife the next morning, it was with Mrs. Houghton's warning-emphasized by the presence of a nurse-that he must not excite her. So he sat at her bedside and told her about his trip, and how he had got ahead of the Greenleaf heirs, and how he rushed back to Mercer the minute those dispatches came saying that she was ill-and he never asked her why she was ill, or what took her out to the river in the cold dusk of that March afternoon. She didn't try to tell him. She was very warm and drowsy-and she held in her hand, under the bedclothes, that letter which proved how much she loved him, and which, some time, when she got well, she would show him. All that day the household outside her closed door was very much upset; but Eleanor, in the big bed, was perfectly placid. She lay mere watching the tarnished gilt pendulum swing between the black pillars of the clock on the mantelpiece, thinking-thinking. "You'll be all right to-morrow!" Maurice would say; and she would smile silently and go on thinking. "When I get well," she thought, "I will do-so and so." By and by, still with the letter clutched in her hot hand, she began to say to herself, "If I get well." She had ceased worrying over how she was going to explain the "accident" to Maurice; that "if" left a door open into eternal reticence. So, instead of worrying, she made plans for Jacky: "He must see a dentist," she told Maurice. On the third day she stopped saying, "If I get well," and thought, "When I die." She said it very tranquilly, "When I die Maurice must get him a bicycle." She thought of this happily, for dying meant that she had not failed. She would not be ridiculous to Maurice-she would be his wife, giving him a child-a son! So she lay with her eyes closed, thinking of the bicycle and many little, pleasant things; and with the old, slipping inexactness of mind she told herself that she had not "done anything wrong"; she had not drowned herself! She had just caught a bad cold. But she would die, and Maurice would love her for giving him Jacky. Toward evening, however, an uneasy thought came to her: if Maurice knew that, to give him Jacky, she had even tried to get drowned, it might distress him? She wished she hadn't written the letter! It would hurt him to see it.... Well, but he needn't see it! She held out the crumpled envelope. "Miss Ryan," she said to the nurse, huskily, "please burn this."

"Yes, indeed!" said Miss Ryan....

There was a burst of flame in the fireplace, and the little, pitiful letter, with its selfishness and pain and sacrifice, vanished-as Lily's handkerchief had vanished, and the braided ring of blossoming grass-all gone, as the sparks that fly upward. Nobody could ever know the scented humiliation of the handkerchief, or the agony of the faded ring, or the renouncing love which had written the poor foolish letter. Maurice wouldn't be pained. As for her gift to him of Jacky, she would just tell him she wanted him to marry Lily, so he could have his child.... And Edith? Oh, he would never think of Edith!

So she was very peaceful until, the next day, she heard Edith's voice in the hall, then she frowned. "She's here! In the house with him! Don't let her come in," she told Maurice; "she takes my breath." But, somehow, she couldn't help thinking of Edith.... "That morning in the garden she cried," Eleanor thought. It was strange to think of tears in those clear, careless eyes. "I never supposed she could cry. I've cried a good deal. Men don't like tears." And there had been tears in Edith's eyes when she came in and sat on the bed and said she was "unhappy...." "She believed," Eleanor meditated, her own eyes closed, "that it was because of her that I went out to the river." She was faintly sorry that Edith should reproach herself. "I didn't do it because she made me angry; I did it to make Maurice happy. I almost wish she knew that." Perhaps it was this vague regret that made her remember Edith's assertion that she would do "anything on earth" to keep Maurice from marrying Lily. "But that's the only way he can be sure of getting Jacky," Eleanor argued to herself, her mind clearing into helpless perplexity-"and it's the only way to keep him from Edith. But I wish Lily wasn't so vulgar. Maurice won't like living with her." Suddenly she said, "Maurice, do send the nurse out of the room. I want to tell you something, darling." She was very hoarse.

"Better not talk, dear," he said, anxiously.

She smiled and shook her head. "I just want to tell you: I don't mind not getting well, because then you'll marry Lily."

"Eleanor! Don't-don't-"

"And you can give little Jacky the kind of home he ought to have."

She drowsed. Maurice sat beside her with his face buried in his hands. When she awoke, at dusk, she lay peacefully watching the firelight flickering on the ceiling, and, thinking-thinking. Then, into her peace, broke again the memory of Edith's distress. "Perhaps I ought to tell her that I went to the river for Maurice's sake? Not because I was angry at her." She thought of Edith's tears, and said, "Poor Edith-" And when she said that a strange thing happened: pity, like a soft breath, blew out the vehement flame. It is always so; pity and jealousy are never together....

The next morning she remembered her words about Jacky-"the kind of home he ought to have"-and again uneasiness as to the kind of "home" it would be for Maurice rose in her mind. Her head whirled with worry. "It won't be pleasant for him to live with her, even if she can cook. He loves that chocolate cake; but he couldn't bear her grammar. Edith said I was 'unkind' to him. Am I? I suppose she thought he'd be happier with her? Would he? She can make that cake, too. Yes; he would be happier with her than with Lily;-and Jacky would call her 'Mother,"' Then she forgot Edith.

After a while she said: "Maurice, can't I see Jacky? Go get him! And give Lily the car fare."

Maurice went downstairs and called Mrs. Houghton out of the parlor; in the hall he said: "I think Eleanor's sort of mixed up. She is talking about 'Lily's car fare'! What do you suppose she means? Is she-delirious? And then she says she 'wants to see Jacky.' What must I do?"

"Go and get him," she said.

For a bewildered minute he hesitated. If Mrs. Newbolt should see Jacky, she ... would know! And Edith ... would she suspect? Still he went-like a man in a dream. As he got off the car, a block from Lily's door, a glimpse of the far-off end of the route where "Eleanor's meadow" lay, made his purpose still more dreamlike. But he was abruptly direct with Lily: he had come, he said, to tell her that his wife wanted-

"My soul and body!" she broke in; "if she's sent you-" They were in the dining room, Maurice so pale that Lily, in real alarm, had put her hand on his arm and made him sit down. But she was angry. "Has she got on to that again?"

His questioning bewilderment brought her explanation.

"She didn't tell you she'd been here? Well, I promised her I wouldn't give her away to you, and I wouldn't,-but so long as she's sent you, now, there's no harm, I guess, telling you?" So she told him. "What possessed you to let on to her?" she ended. She was puzzled at his folly, but she was sympathetic, too. "I suppose she ragged it out of you?"

Maurice had listened, silently, his elbow on his knee, his fist hard against his mouth; he did not try to tell her why he had "let on"; he could not say that he wanted to defend his son from such a mother; still less could he make clear to her that Eleanor had not "ragged it out of him," but that, to his famished passion for truth, confession had been the Bread of Life. He looked at her once or twice as she talked; pretty, yet; kindly, coarse, honest-and Eleanor had supposed that he would marry her! Then, sharply, his mind pictured that scene: his wife, his poor, frightened old Eleanor, pleading for the gift of Jacky! And Lily-young, arrogant, kind.... The pain of it made his passion of pity so like love that the tears stood in his eyes. "Oh, she mustn't die," he thought; "I won't let her die!"

When Lily had finished her story he told her his, very briefly: his wife's forgiveness of his unfaithfulness; her desire to do all she could for Jacky: "Help me-I mean help you-to make a man of him, because she loves me. Heaven knows I'm not worthy of it."

Lily gulped. "She ain't young; but, my God, she's some woman!" She threw her apron over her face and cried hard; then stopped and wiped her eyes. "She wants to see him, does she? Well, you bet she shall see him! I'll get him; he's playing in at Mr. Dennett's-he's all on being an undertaker now. Mr. Dennett's a Funeral Pomps Director. But he's got to put on his new suit." She ran out on to the porch, and Maurice could hear the colloquy across the fence: "You come in the house, quick!"

"Won't. We're going to in-in-inter a hen."

"Yes, you will! You're going to put on your new suit and go and see a lady-"

"Lady? Not on your life."

"It's Mr. Curtis wants you-" Then Jacky's yell, "Mr. Curtis?" and a dash up the back steps and into the dining room-then, silent, grimy adoration!

Maurice gave his orders. "Change your clothes, young man. I'll bring him back, Lily, as soon as she's seen him."

While he waited for the new suit Maurice walked up and down the little room, round and round the table, where on a turkey-red cloth a hideous hammered brass bowl held some lovely maidenhair ferns. The vision of Eleanor abasing herself to Lily was unendurable. To drive it from his mind, he went to the window and stood looking out through the fragrant greenness of rose geraniums, into the squalid street where the offspring of the Funeral Pomps Director were fighting over the dead hen; from the bathroom came the sound of a sputtering gush from the hot-water faucet; then splashes and whining protests, and maternal adjurations: "You got to look decent! I will wash behind your ears. You're the worst boy on the street!"

"Eleanor tried to save him," he thought; "she came here, and begged for him!"

Above the bathroom noises came Lily's voice, sharp with efficiency, but shaking with pity and a quick-hearted purpose of hel

ping: "Say, Mr. Curtis! Could she eat some fresh doughnuts? (Jacky, if you don't stand still I'll give you a regular spanking! I didn't put soap in your eyes!) If she can, I'll fry some for her to-morrow."

Maurice, tramping back and forth, made no answer; he was saying to himself, "If she'll just live, I will make her happy! Oh, she must live!" It was then that, suddenly, agonizingly, in the midst of splashings, and Jacky's whines, and Lily's anxiety about soap and doughnuts, Maurice Curtis prayed ...

He did not know it was prayer; it was just a cry: "Do something-oh, do something! Do you hear me? She tried so hard to save Jacky. Make her get well!" So it was that, in his selfless cry for happiness for Eleanor, Maurice found all those differing realizations-Joy, and Law, and Life, and Love-and lo! they were one-a personality! God. In his frantic words he established a relationship with Him-not It, any longer! "Please, please make her get well," he begged, humbly.

At that moment, at the door of the dining room, appeared an immaculate Jacky in his new suit, his face shining with bliss and soap. He came and stood beside Maurice, waiting his monarch's orders, and listening, without comprehension, to the conversation:

"Nothing will be said to him that will ... give anything away. She just wants to see him. His presence in the room-"

Jacky gave a little leap. "Did you say presents!"

"-his merely being there will please her. She loves him, Lily. You see, she's always wanted children, and-we've never had any."

Jacky's mother said, in a muffled voice, "My land!" Then she caught Jacky in her arms and kissed him all over his face.

"Aw, stop," said Jacky, greatly embarrassed; to have Mr. Curtis see him being kissed, "like a kid!" was a cruel mortification. "Aw, let up," said Jacky.

When he and Mr. Curtis started in to town his eyes seemed to grow bluer, and his face more beaming, and his voice, asking endless questions, more joyous every minute. In the car he shoved up very close to Maurice, and tried to think of something wonderful to tell him. By and by, breathing loudly, he achieved: "Say, Mr. Curtis, our ash sifter got broke." Then he shoved a little closer. Just before they reached Mrs. Newbolt's house the haggard, unhappy father gave his son orders:

"There is a lady who wants to see you, Jacky. She's my wife. Mrs. Curtis. You are to be very polite to her, and kiss her-"

"Kiss a lady!"

"Yes. You'll do what I tell you! Understand?"

"Yes, sir," Jacky said, sniffling.

"You are to tell her you love her; but you are not to speak unless you are spoken to. Do you get on to that?"

"Yes, sir. No, sir," poor Jacky said, dejectedly.

It was Edith who, watching for Maurice from the parlor window, opened the front door to him. She looked up into his eyes, then down into Jacky's, who, at that moment, took the opportunity, sighing, to obey orders; be reached up and gave a little peck at Edith's cheek.

"I love you," he said, gloomily. "I done it," he told Maurice. "He said I got to," he explained to Edith, resignedly, as she, startled but pleased, took his little rough hand in hers.

Just as she did so Mrs. Newbolt, coming downstairs, saw him and stopped short in the middle of a sentence-the relationship between the man and the child was unmistakable. When she got her breath she said, coldly: "There's a change, Maurice. Better go right upstairs."

He went, hurriedly, leading his little boy by the hand.

"Well, upon my word!" said Mrs. Newbolt, looking after the small, climbing figure in the new suit. "I wouldn't have believed such a thing of Maurice Curtis-oh, my poor Eleanor!" she said, and burst out crying. "I suppose she knows? Did she want to see the child? I always said she was a puffect angel! But I don't wonder she-she got wet ..."

Eleanor was very close to the River now, yet she smiled when Jacky's shrinking lips touched her cheek.

"Take her hand," Maurice told him, softly, and the little boy, silent and frightened, obeyed; but he kept his eyes on his father.

Eleanor, with long pauses, said: "Dear ... Jacky. Maurice, did you give her ... five cents? He must have ... music lessons."

"Yes, Star," he said, brokenly. "Jacky," he said, in a whisper, "say 'I love you.'"

But Jacky whispered back, anxiously, "But I said it to the other one?"

"Say it!" his father said.

"I love you," said Jacky, trembling.

Eleanor smiled, slept for a moment, then opened her eyes. "He doesn't look ... like her?"

"Not in the least," Maurice said.

Jacky, quailing, tried to draw his hand away from those cool fingers; but a look from his father stopped him.

"No," Eleanor murmured; "I see ... it won't do for"-Maurice bent close to her lips, but he could not catch the next words-"for you to marry her."

After that she was silent for so long that Maurice led the little boy out of the room. As he brought him into the parlor, Henry Houghton, who had just come in, looked at the father and son, and felt astonishment tingle in his veins like an electric shock. He gripped Maurice's hand, silently, and gave Jacky's ear a friendly pull.

"Edith," Maurice Said, "I would take him home, but I mustn't leave Eleanor. Will you get one of the maids to put him on a Medfield car-"

"I'll take him," Edith said.

Maurice began to say, sharply, "No!" then he stopped; after all, why not? "She must know the whole business by this time. Jacky's face gives it all away." She might as well, he thought, know Jacky's mother, as she knew his father.

Jacky, in a little growling voice, said, "Don't want nobody to put me on no car. I can-"

"Be quiet, my boy," Maurice said, gently. He gave Edith Lily's address and went back upstairs.

Henry Houghton, watching and listening, felt his face twitch; then he blew his nose loudly. "I'll look after him," he told Edith. "I-I'll take him to-the person he lives with. It isn't suitable for a girl-"

In spite of the gravity of the moment his girl laughed. "Father, you are a lamb! No; I'll take him." Then she gave Jacky a cooky, which he ate thoughtfully.

"We have 'em nicer at our house," he said. On the corner, waiting for the Medfield car, Edith offered a friendly hand, which he refused to notice. The humiliation of being taken home, "by a woman!" was scorching his little pride. He made up his mind that if them scab Dennett boys seen him getting out of the car with a woman, he'd lick the tar out of them! All the way to Maple Street he sat with his face glued to the window, never speaking a word to the "woman." When the car stopped he pushed out ahead of her and tore down the street. Happily no Dennett boys saw him!-but he dashed past his mother, who was standing at the gate, and disappeared in the house.

Lily, bareheaded in the pale April sunshine, had been watching for him rather anxiously. In deference to the occasion she had changed her dress; a string of green-glass beads, encircling her plump white neck, glimmered through the starched freshness of an incredibly frank blouse, and her white duck skirt was spotless. Her whole little fat body was as fresh and sweet as one of her own hyacinths, and her kind face had the unchanging, unhuman youthfulness of flesh and blood which has never been harried by the indwelling soul. But she was frowning. She had begun to be nervous; Jacky had been away nearly two hours! "Are they playing a gum game on me?" Lily thought; "Are they going to try and kidnap him?" It was then that she caught sight of Jacky, tearing toward home, his fierce blue eyes raking the street for any of them there Dennett boys, who must have the tar licked out of 'em! Edith was following him, in hurrying anxiety. Instantly Lily was reassured. "One of Mrs. Curtis's lady friends, I suppose," she thought. "Well, it's up to me to keep her guessing on Jacky!" She was very polite and simpering when, at the gate, Edith said that Mr. Curtis asked her to bring Jacky home.

"Won't you come in and be seated?" Lily urged, hospitably.

Edith said no; she was sorry; but she must go right back; "Mrs. Curtis is very ill, I am sorry to say."

At this moment Jacky came out to the gate; he had two cookies in his hand. He said, shyly: "Maw's is better 'an yours. You can have"-this with a real effort-"the big one."

Edith took the "big one," pleasantly, and said, "Yes, they are nicer than ours, Jacky."

But Lily was mortified. "The lady'll think you have no manners. Go on back into the house!"

"Won't," said Jacky, eating his cooky.

His mother tried to cover his obstinacy with conversation: "He's crazy about Mr. Curtis. Well, no wonder. Mr. Curtis was a great friend of my husband's. Mr. Dale-his name was Augustus; I named Jacky after him; Ernest Augustus. He died three years ago; no, I guess it was two-"

"Huh?" said Jacky, interested, "You said my paw died-"

Lily, with that desire to smack her son which every mother knows, cut his puzzled arithmetic short. "Yes. Mr. Dale was a great clubman. In Philadelphia. I believe that's where he and Mr. Curtis got to be chums. But I never met her."

Edith said, rigidly, "Really?"

"Jacky's the image of Mr. Dale. He died of-of typhus fever. Mr. Curtis was one of the pallbearers; that's how I got acquainted with him. Jacky was six then," Lily ended, breathlessly. ("I guess that's fixed her," she thought.)

Edith only said again, "Really?" Then added, "Good afternoon," and hurried away. So this was the woman Eleanor would make Maurice marry! "Never!" Edith said. "Never! if I can prevent it!"

Upstairs in Mrs. Newbolt's spare room, as the twilight thickened, there was silence, except for the terrible breathing, and the clock ticking away the seconds; one by one they fell-like beads slipping from a string. Maurice sat holding Eleanor's hand. The others, speaking, sometimes, without sound, or moving, noiselessly, stood before the meek majesty of dying. Waiting. Waiting. It was not until midnight that she opened her eyes again and looked at Maurice, very peacefully.

"Tell Edith it wasn't what she said, made me try ... our river ... Jacky will call her ... Tell Edith ... to be kind to Jacky."

She did not speak again.

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