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The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 22417

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"I have an uneasy feeling," said Mr. Houghton, "that he is thinking of marrying the woman, just to carry out Eleanor's wish. Poor Eleanor! Always doing the wrong thing, with greatness." This was in September. Maurice was to come up to Green Hill for a Sunday, and the Houghtons were in the studio talking about the expected guest. Later Edith was to drive over to the junction and meet him....

It was not only Green Hill which talked about Maurice. In the months that followed Eleanor's death, a good many people had pondered his affairs, because, somehow, that visit of Jacky's to Mrs. Newbolt's house, got noised abroad, so Maurice's friends (making the inevitable deductions) told one another exactly what he ought to do.

Mrs. Newbolt expressed herself in great detail: "I shall never forgive him," she said; "my poor Eleanor! She forgave him, and sent for the child. More than I would do for any man! But I could have told her what to expect. In fact, I did. I always said if she wasn't entertainin', she'd lose him. Yes; she had a hard time-but she kept her figger. Should Maurice marry the-boy's mother? 'Course not! Puffect nonsense. You think he'll make up to Edith Houghton? She would have too much self-respect to look at him! And if she did, her father would never consent to it."

The Mortons' opinion was just as definite: "I hope Maurice will marry again; Edith's just the girl for him-What!" Mrs. Morton interrupted herself, at a whisper of gossip, "he had a mistress? I don't believe a word of it!"

"But I'm afraid it's true," her husband told her, soberly; "there's a boy." His wife's shocked face made him add: "I think Curtis will feel he ought to legitimatize the youngster by marrying his mother. Maurice is good stuff. He won't sidestep an obligation."

"I never heard of such an awful idea!" said Mrs. Morton, dismayed. "I hope he'll do nothing of the kind! You can't correct one mistake by making another. Don't you agree with me?" she demanded of Doctor Nelson; who displayed, of course, entire ignorance of Mr. Curtis's affairs.

He only said, "Well, it's a rum world."

Johnny Bennett, in Buenos Aires, reading a letter from his father, said: "Poor Eleanor!" ... Then he grew a little pale under his tan, and added something which showed his opinion-not, perhaps, of what Maurice ought to do, but of what he would do! "I might as well make it a three-years' contract," Johnny said, bleakly, "instead of one. Of course there 11 be no use going back home. Eleanor's death settles my hash."

Even Mrs. O'Brien, informed by kitchen leakage as to what had happened, had something to say: "He ought to make an honest woman of the little fellow's mother. But to think of him treating Miss Eleanor that way!"

And now, in the studio, the Houghtons also were saying what Maurice ought-and ought not!-to do: "I'm afraid he's thinking of marrying her," Mr. Houghton had said; and his wife had said, quickly, "I hope so-for the sake of his child!"

"But, Mary," he protested, "look at it from the woman's point of view; this 'Lily' would be wretched if she had to live Maurice's kind of life!"

Edith, standing with her back to her father and mother, staring down into the ashes of the empty fireplace, said, over her shoulder, "Maurice may marry somebody who will help him with Jacky-just as Eleanor would have done, if she had lived."

"My dear," her father said, quickly, "he has had enough of your sex to last his lifetime! As a mere matter of taste, I think Maurice won't marry anybody."

"I don't see why, just because he-did wrong ten years ago," Edith said, "he has got to sidestep happiness for the rest of his life! But as for marrying that Mrs. Dale, it would be a cat-and-dog life."

"Edith," said her father, "when you agree with me I am filled with admiration for your intelligence! Your sex has, generally, mere intuition-a nice, divine thing, and useful in its way. But indifferent to logic. My sex has judgment; so when you, a female, display judgment, I, as a parent, am gratified. 'Cat-and-dog life' is a mild way of putting it;-a quarrelsome home is hell,-and hell is a poor place in which to bring up a child! Mary, my darling, you can derail any train by putting a big enough obstacle on the track; the fact that the obstacle is pure gold, like your idealism, wouldn't prevent a domestic wreck-in which Jacky would be the victim! But in regard to Maurice's marrying anybody else"-he paused and looked at his daughter-"that seems to me undesirable."

Edith's face hardened. "I don't see why," she said; then added, abruptly, "I must go and write some letters," and went quickly out of the room.

They looked after her, and then at each other.

"You see?" Mary Houghton said; "she cares for him!"

"I couldn't face it!" her husband said; "I couldn't have Edith in such a mess. Morally speaking, of course he has a right to marry; but he can't have my girl! Let him marry some other man's girl-and I'll give them my blessing. He's a dear fellow-but he can't have our Edith."

She shook her head. "If it were not for his duty to Jacky, I would be glad to have Edith marry him. And as for saying that she 'can't,' these are not the days, Henry, when fathers and mothers decide whom their girls may marry."

While his old friends were thus talking him over, Maurice was traveling up to the mountains. He had seen Mr. and Mrs. Houghton in Mercer several times since Eleanor's death, but he had not been able to face the associations and recollections of Green Hill. This was largely because, though his friends had, with such ease, reached decisions for him, he was himself so absorbed in indecision that he could not go back to the careless pleasantness of old intimacies, (As for that question of the wheels,-"if-if-if anything happens to Eleanor?"-Eleanor herself had answered it in one word: Lily.) So, since her death Maurice's whole mind was intent on Jacky. What must he do fear him? His occasional efforts to train the child had been met, more than once, by sharp rebuffs. Whenever he went to see Jacky, Lily was perfectly good humored-unless she felt she was being criticized; then the claws showed through the fur!

"You can give me money, if you want to, to send him to a swell school." She said, once; "but I tell you, Mr. Curtis, right out, I ain't going to have you come in between me and Jacky by talking up things to him that I don't care about. All these religious frills about Truth! They say nowadays hardly any rich people tell the truth. And talking grammar to him! You set him against me," she, said, and her eyes filled with angry tears.

"I wouldn't think of setting him against you," he said; "only, I want to do my duty to him."

"'Duty'!" said Lily, contemptuously; "I'm not going to bring him up old-fashioned. And this thing of telling him not to say 'ain't,' I say it, and what else would he say? There ain't any other word. He's my child-and I'll bring him up the way I like! Wait; I'll give you some fudge; I've just made it..."

Maurice, now, on his way up to Green Hill, looking out of the car window, and remembering interviews like this with his son's mother, wondered if Edith had seen Lily the day she took Jacky home? That made him wonder what Edith would think of the whole business? To a woman like Edith it would be simply disgusting. "I'll just drop out of her life," he said. He thought of the day he brought Jacky to Mrs. Newbolt's door, and Edith had looked at him-and then at Jacky-and then at him again. She understood! Would she understand now? Probably not. "Of course old Johnny'll get her ... But, oh, what life might have been!"

Edith had driven over to the junction earlier than was necessary, because she had wanted to get away from her father and mother. "They are afraid he'll fall in love with me," she thought, hotly; "if he ever does, nothing they can say shall separate us. Nothing! But mother'll try to influence him to marry that dreadful creature, and father will say things about 'honor,' so he'll feel he ought never to marry-anybody. Oh, they are lambs," she said, setting her teeth; "but they mustn't keep Maurice from being happy!" At the station, as she sat in the buggy flecking her whip idly, and waiting for Maurice's train, her whole mind was on the defensive. "He has a right to be happy. He has a right to marry again ... but they needn't worry about me!" she thought. "I've never grown up to Maurice. But whatever happens, he shan't marry that woman!"

When Maurice got off the train there was a blank moment when she did not recognize him. As a careworn man came up to her with an outstretched hand and a friendly, "This is awfully nice in you, Skeezics!" she said, with a gasp, "Maurice!" He had aged so that he looked, she thought, as old as Eleanor. But they were both laboriously casual, until the usual remarks upon the weather, and the change in the time-table, had been exhausted.

It was Edith who broke into reality-Maurice had taken the reins, and they were jogging slowly along. "Maurice," she said, "how is Jacky?" His start was so perceptible that she said, "You don't mind my asking?"

"I don't mind anything you could say to me, Edith. I'm grateful to you for asking."

"I want to help you about him," she said.

He put out his left hand and gripped hers. Then he said: "I'm going to do my best for the little fellow. I've botched my own life, Edith;-of course you know that? But he shan't botch his, if I can help it!"

"I think you can help it," Edith said.

His heart contracted; yet it was what he had expected. The idealism of an absolutely pure woman. "Well," he said, heavily, "of course I've got to do what I honestly think is the light thing."

"Are you sure," she said, "that you know what the right thing is? You mustn't make a mistake."

"I may be said to have made my share," he told her, dryly.

She did not answer that; she said, passionately, "Maurice, I'd give anything in the world if I could help you!"

"Don't talk that way," he commanded, harshly. "I'm human! So please don't be kind to me, Edith; I can't stand it."

Instantly her heart pounded in her throat: "He cares. Oh, they can't separate us. But they'll try to." ... The rest of the drive was rather silent. On the porch at Green Hill the two older friends were waiting to welcome him. ("Don't let's leave them alone," Henry Houghton had said, with a worried look; which made his wife, in spite of her own uneasiness, smile, "Oh, Henry, you are an innocent creature!") After dinner Mrs. Houghton, determinedly commonplace, came to the rescue of what threatened to be a somewhat conscious occasion, by talking books and music. Her husband may have been "innocent," but he did his part by shoving a cigar box toward the "boy," and saying, "How's business? We must talk Weston's offer over," he said.

Maurice nodded, but got up and went to the piano; "Tough on you, Skeezics," he said once, glancing at Edith.

"Oh, I don't mind it, much," she said, drolly.

So the evening trudged along in secure stupidity. Yet it was a straining stupidity, and there was an inaudible sigh of relief from everybody when, at last, Mary Houg

hton said, "Come, good people! It's time to go to bed."

"Yes, turn in, Maurice," said his host; "you look tired." Then he got on his feet, and said good night with an alacrity which showed how much he "wished he was asleep"! But he was not permitted to sleep. Maurice, swinging round from the piano, said, with a rather rigid face:

"Would you mind just waiting a minute and letting me tell you something about myself, Uncle Henry?"

"Of course not!" Mr. Houghton said, with great assumption of cheerfulness. He went back to the sofa-furtively achieving a cigar as he did so-and saying to himself, "Well, at least it will give me a chance to let him see how I feel about his ever marrying again."

Edith was standing by the piano, one hand resting on the keyboard and drumming occasionally in disconnected octaves. ("If it's business," she thought, "I'll leave them alone; but if they are going to 'advise' him, I'll stay-and fight.")

Maurice came and sat on the edge of the big table, his hands in his pockets, and one foot swinging nervously. "I hope you dear people don't think I'm an ungrateful cuss, not to have come to Green Hill this summer; but the fact is, I've been awfully up against it, trying to make up my mind about something."

Henry Houghton looked at the fire end of his cigar with frowning intentness and said yes, he supposed so. "Weston's offer seems to me fair," he said (this referred to a partnership possibility, on which Maurice had consulted him by letter); but his remark, now, was so obviously a running to cover that, in spite of himself, Maurice grinned. "Weston's a very square fellow," said Henry Houghton.

"If you are going to talk 'offers,'" said Edith, "do you want me to clear out?"

"It isn't business," Maurice said, quietly; "it's my ... little son. No; don't clear out, Edith. I'd rather talk to your mother and Uncle Henry before you."

"All right," said Edith, and struck some soft chords; but her young mouth was hard.

"Of course," Maurice said, "as things are now-I mean poor Eleanor gone-I have thought a good deal of what I ought to do for Jacky. It was Nelly's wish that I should do the straight thing for him. There wasn't any question, I think, of the 'straight thing' for Lily-"

"Of course not!" Mary Houghton agreed. And her husband said, "Any such idea would be nonsense, Maurice."

"And I myself don't count," Maurice went on.

Again Mrs. Houghton agreed-very gravely: "Compared to the child, dear Maurice, you don't."

"You do!" Edith said; but nobody heard her.

"So at first," Maurice said, "I kept thinking of how Eleanor had wanted me to have him-legally, you know; wanted it so much that she-" there was a silence in the studio; "that she was glad to die, to make it possible." He paused, and Mary Houghton saw his cheek twitch. "Well, I felt that clinched it. I felt I must carry out her wish, and ask Mrs. Dale to-marry me."

"Morbid," said Henry Houghton.

Edith, listening, said nothing; but she was ready to spring!

"Perhaps it was morbid," Maurice said; "but just at first it seemed that way to me. Then I began to realize that what poor Nelly wanted, wasn't to have me marry Lily-that was only a means to an end; she wanted Jacky taken care of"; (Edith nodded.) "And she thought marrying his mother was the best way to do that." (Edith shook her head.)

"Well; I thought it all over ... I kept myself and my own feelings out of it." Behind those laconic words lay the weeks of struggle, of which even these good friends could have no idea! Weeks in which, while Mercer was deciding what he ought to do, Maurice, "keeping himself out of it," had put aside ambition and smothered taste, and thrown over, once for all, personal happiness. As a wrestler strips from his body all hampering things, so he had stripped from his mind every instinct which might interfere with a straight answer to a straight question: "What will be best for my boy?" He gave the answer now, in Henry Houghton's studio, while Edith, over in the shadows, at the piano, looked at him. Her face was quite pale.

"So all I had to do," said Maurice, "was to think of Jacky's welfare. That made it easier to decide. I find," he said, simply, "that you can decide things pretty easily if you don't have to think of yourself. So I said, 'If I marry Lily, though Jacky couldn't be taken away from me, physically, spiritually'-you know what I mean, Mrs. Houghton?-'he might be removed to-to the ends of the earth!' I might lose his affection; and I've got to hold on to that, at any cost, because that's how I can influence him." He was talking now entirely to Edith's mother, and his voice was harsh with entreaty for understanding. He didn't care very much whether Henry Houghton understood or not. And of course Edith could never understand! But that this serene woman of the stars should misjudge him was unbearable. "You see what I mean, Mrs. Houghton, don't you? I know Lily;-and I know that if she thought I had any right to say how he must be brought up, it would mean nothing but perfectly hideous controversies all the time! So long as she thinks she has the upper hand, she'll be generous; she doesn't mind his being fond of me, you know. But she'd fight tooth and nail if she thought I had any rights! You see that, don't you?"

"I see it!" Edith said.

"Yet from a merely material point of view," said Mrs. Houghton, "in spite of 'controversies,' legitimacy would give Jacky advantages, which-oh, Maurice, don't you see?-your son has a right to!"

But her husband said, quickly, "Mary, living with a quarreling father and mother is spiritual illegitimacy; and the disadvantages of that would be worse than the material handicap of being a-a fatherless child."

His daughter flashed a passionately grateful look at him.

Maurice, still speaking to Edith's mother, said: "That's the way I looked at it, Mrs. Houghton. So it seemed to me that I could do more for him if I didn't marry Lily."

Mary Houghton was silent; it was very necessary to consider the stars.

"I put myself out of it," Maurice said. "I just said, 'If it's best for Jacky, I'll ask her to marry me,' My honest opinion was that it would be bad for him."

Edith struck two chords-and sat down on the piano stool, swallowing hard.

"You don't agree with me, I'm afraid, Mrs. Houghton?" he said, anxiously.

"My dear boy," she said, "I am sure you are doing what you believe to be right. But it does not seem right to me."

He flinched, but he was not shaken; "It isn't going to be easy, whatever I do. I want to educate him, and see him constantly, and influence him as much as possible. And Lily will be less jealous of me, in her own house, than she would be in mine."

Edith got up and came and sat on the arm of the sofa by her father. "I can see," she said, "how much easier it would be for Maurice to do the hard thing."

Maurice looked at her with deep tenderness. "You are a satisfying person!" he said.

Henry Houghton took his girl's hand, and held it in a grip that hurt her. "Maurice is right," he said; "things are not going to be easy for him. For, though he won't marry Jacky's mother, he won't, I think, marry anybody else."

"Why won't he?" said Edith.

"There is no moral reason why he shouldn't," her father conceded; "it is a question of taste; one might perhaps call it a question of honor"-Maurice whitened, but Henry Houghton went on, calmly, "Maurice will, of necessity, be so involved with this woman-and God knows what annoyances she may make for him, that-it distresses me to say so-but I can see that he will not feel like asking any woman to share such a burden as he has to carry."

"If he loves any woman," Edith said, "let him ask her! If she turns him down, it stamps her for a coward!"

"Don't you think I'm right, Maurice?" her father said.

"Yes," Maurice said. "You are right. I've faced that."

Edith sprang to her feet, and stood looking at her father and mother, her eyes stern with protecting passion. "It seems to me absurd," she said,-"like standing up so straight you fall over backward!-for Maurice to feel he can't marry-somebody else, just because he-he did wrong, ever so many years ago! He's sorry, now. Aren't you sorry, Maurice?" she said.

His eyes stung;-the simplicity of the word was like a flower tossed into the black depths of his repentance! "Yes, dear," he said, gently; "I'm 'sorry.' But no amount of 'sorrow' can alter consequences, Edith."

"Oh," she said, turning to the other two, "don't you want Maurice ever to be happy?"

"I want him to be good," said her mother.

"I can't be happy, Edith," Maurice told her; "don't you see?"

She looked straight in his eyes, her own eyes terror-stricken. ... They would drive him away from her! "You shall be happy," she said.

They saw only each other, now.

"No," Maurice said; "it's just as your father says; I have no right to drag any girl into the kind of life I've got to live. I'll have to see Lily a good deal, so as to keep in with her-and be able to look after Jacky. Personal happiness is all over for me."

She caught at his arm; "It isn't! Maurice, don't listen to them!" Then she turned and stood in front of him, as though to put her young breast between him and that tender, menacing parental love. "Oh, mother-oh, father! I do love you; I don't want to do anything you don't approve of;-but Maurice comes first. If he asks me to marry him, I will."

Under his breath Maurice said, "Edith!"

"My darling," Henry Houghton said, "consider: people are bound to know all about this. The publicity will be a very painful embarrassment-"

Edith broke in, "As if that matters!"

"But the serious thing," her father went on, "Is that this woman will be a millstone around his neck-"

"She shall be around my neck, too!" she said. There was a breathless moment; then Truth, nobly naked, spoke: "Maurice, duty is the first thing in the world;-not happiness. If you thought it was your duty to marry Lily, I wouldn't say a word. You would never know that I cared. Never! I'd just stand by, and help you. I'd live in the same house with her, if it would help you! But-" her voice shook; "you don't think it's your duty. You know it isn't! You know that it would make things worse for Jacky,-not better, as Eleanor wanted them to be. So why shouldn't you be happy? Oh, it's artificial, to refuse to be happy!" Before he could speak, she added, quite simply, the sudden tears bright in her eyes, "I know you love me."

He looked at the father and mother: "You wouldn't have me lie to her, would you?-even to save her from herself! ... Of course I love you, Edith,-more than anything on earth,-but I have no right-"

"You have a right," she said.

"I want you," he said, "God knows, it would mean life to me! But-"

"Then take me," she said.

Mrs. Houghton came and put her arms around her girl and kissed her. "Take her, Maurice," she said, quietly. Then she looked at her husband: "Dear," she said, and smiled-a little mistily; "wisdom will not die with us! The children must do what they think is right ... Even if it is wrong." She had considered the stars.

THE END

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