THE VEHEMENT FLAME
BY MARGARET DELAND
AUTHOR OF DR. LAVENDAR'S PEOPLE, OLD CHESTER TALES, ETC.
Together, so many years ago—seven, I think, or eight—you and I planned this story. The first chapters had the help of your criticism ... then, I had to go on alone, urged by the memory of your interest. But all the blunders are mine, not yours; and any merits are yours, not mine. That it has been written, in these darkened years, has been because your happy interest still helped me.
MARGARET May 12th, 1922
THE VEHEMENT FLAME
Love is as strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.
THE SONG OF SOLOMON, VIII, 6.
There is nothing in the world nobler, and lovelier, and more absurd, than a boy's lovemaking. And the joyousness of it!...
The boy of nineteen, Maurice Curtis, who on a certain June day lay in the blossoming grass at his wife's feet and looked up into her dark eyes, was embodied Joy! The joy of the warm earth, of the sunshine glinting on the slipping ripples of the river and sifting through the cream-white blossoms of the locust which reared its sheltering branches over their heads; the joy of mating insects and birds, of the whole exulting, creating universe!—the unselfconscious, irresponsible, wholly beautiful Joy of passion which is without apprehension or humor. The eyes of the woman who sat in the grass beside this very young man, answered his eyes with Love. But it was a more human love than his, because there was doubt in its exultation....
The boy took out his watch and looked at it.
"We have been married," he said, "exactly fifty-four minutes."
"I can't believe it!" she said.
"If I love you like this after fifty-four minutes of married life, how do you suppose I shall feel after fifty-four years of it?" He flung an arm about her waist, and hid his face against her knee. "We are married," he said, in a smothered voice.
She bent over and kissed his thick hair, silently. At which he sat up and looked at her with blue, eager eyes.
"It just came over me! Oh, Eleanor, suppose I hadn't got you? You said 'No' six times. You certainly did behave very badly," he said, showing his white teeth in a broad grin.
"Some people win say I behaved very badly when I said 'Yes.'"
"Tell 'em to go to thunder! What does Mrs. Maurice Curtis (doesn't that sound pretty fine?) care for a lot of old cats? Don't we know that we are in heaven?" He caught her hand and crushed it against his mouth. "I wish," he said, very low, "I almost wish I could die, now, here! At your feet. It seems as if I couldn't live, I am so—" He stopped. So—what? Words are ridiculously inadequate things!... "Happiness" wasn't the name of that fire in his breast, Happiness? "Why, it's God," he said to himself; "God." Aloud, he said, again, "We are married!"
She did not speak—she was a creature of alluring silences—she just put her hand in his. Suddenly she began to sing; there was a very noble quality in the serene sweetness of her voice:
"O thou with dewy locks, who lookest down Through the clear windows of the morning, ten Thine angel eyes upon our western isle, Which in full choir hails thy approach, O Spring!"
That last word rose like a flight of wings into the blue air. Her husband looked at her; for a compelling instant his eyes dredged the depths of hers, so that all the joyous, frightened woman in her retreated behind a flutter of laughter.
"'O Spring!'" he repeated; "we are Spring, Nelly—you and I.... I'll never forget the first time I heard you sing that; snowing like blazes it was,—do you remember? But I swear I felt this hot grass then in Mrs. Newbolt's parlor, with all those awful bric-a-brac things around! Yes," he said, putting his hand on a little sun-drenched bowlder jutting from the earth beside him; "I felt this sun on my hand! And when you came to 'O Spring!' I saw this sky—" He stopped, pulled three blades of grass and began to braid them into a ring. "Lord!" he said, and his voice was suddenly startled; "what a darned little thing can throw the switches for a man! Because I didn't get by in Math. D and Ec 2, and had to crawl out to Mercer to cram with old Bradley—I met you! Eleanor! Isn't it wonderful? A little thing like that—just falling down in mathematics—changed my whole life?" The wild gayety in his eyes sobered. "I happened to come to Mercer—and, you are my wife." His fingers, holding the little grassy ring, trembled; but the next instant he threw himself back on the grass, and kicked up his heels in a preposterous gesture of ecstasy. Then caught her hand, slipped the braided ring over that plain circle of gold which had been on her finger for fifty-four minutes, kissed it—and the palm of her hand—and said, "You never can escape me! Eleanor, your voice played the deuce with me. I rushed home and read every poem in my volume of Blake. Go on; give us the rest."
".... And let our winds Kiss thy perfumed garments; let us taste Thy morn and evening breath!..."
"Oh—stop! I can't bear it," he said, huskily; and, turning on his face, he kissed the grass, earth's "perfumed garment," snow-sprinkled with locust blossoms....
But the moment of passion left him serious. "When I think of Mrs. Newbolt," he said, "I could commit murder." In his own mind he was saying, "I've rescued her!"
"Auntie doesn't mean to be unkind," Eleanor explained, simply; "only, she never understood me—Maurice! Be careful! There's a little ant—don't step on it."
She made him pause in his diatribe against Mrs. Newbolt and move his heel while she pushed the ant aside with a clover blossom. Her anxious gentleness made him laugh, but it seemed to him perfectly beautiful. Then he went on about Mrs. Newbolt:
"Of course she couldn't understand you! You might as well expect a high-tempered cow to understand a violin solo."
"How mad she'd be to be called a cow! Oh, Maurice, do you suppose she's got my letter by this time? I left it on her bureau. She'll rage!"
"Let her rage. Nothing can separate us now."
Thus they dismissed Mrs. Newbolt, and the shock she was probably experiencing at that very moment, while reading Eleanor's letter announcing that, at thirty-nine, she was going to marry this very young man.
"No; nothing can part us," Eleanor said; "forever and ever." And again they were silent—islanded in rippling tides of wind-blown grass, with the warm fragrance of dropping locust blossoms infolding them, and in their ears the endless murmur of the river. Then Eleanor said, suddenly: "Maurice!—Mr. Houghton? What will he do when he hears? He'll think an 'elopement' is dreadful."
He chuckled. "Uncle Henry?—He isn't really my uncle, but I call him that;—he won't rage. He'll just whistle. People of his age have to whistle, to show they're alive. I have reason to believe," the cub said, "that he 'whistled' when I flunked in my mid-years. Well, I felt sorry, myself—on his account," Maurice said, with the serious and amiable condescension of youth. "I hated to jar him. But—gosh! I'd have flunked A B C's, for this. Nelly, I tell you heaven hasn't got anything on this! As for Uncle Henry, I'll write him to-morrow that I had to get married sort of in a hurry, because Mrs. Newbolt wanted to haul you off to Europe. He'll understand. He's white. And he won't really mind—after the first biff;—that will take him below the belt, I suppose, poor old Uncle Henry! But after that, he'll adore you. He adores beauty."
Her delight in his praise made her almost beautiful; but she protested that he was a goose. Then she took the little grass ring from her finger and slipped it into her pocketbook. "I'm going to keep it always," she said. "How about Mrs. Houghton?"
"She'll love you! She's a peach. And little Skeezics—"
"Who is Skeezics?"
"Edith. Their kid. Eleven years old. She paid me the compliment of announcing, when she was seven, that she was going to marry me when she grew up! But I believe, now, she has a crush on Sir Walter Raleigh. She'll adore you, too."
"I'm afraid of them all," she confessed; "they won't like—an elopement."
"They'll fall over themselves with joy to think I'm settled for life! I'm afraid I've been a cussed nuisance to Uncle Henry," he said, ruefully; "always doing fool things, you know,—I mean when I was a boy. And he's been great, always. But I know he's been afraid I'd take a wild flight in actresses."
"'Wild' flight? What will he call—" She caught her breath.
"He'll call it a 'wild flight in angels'!" he said.
The word made her put a laughing and protesting hand (which he kissed) over his lips. Then she said that she remembered Mr. Houghton: "I met him a long time ago; when—when you were a little boy."
"And yet here you are, 'Mrs. Maurice Curtis!' Isn't it supreme?" he demanded. The moment was so beyond words that it made him sophomoric—which was appropriate enough, even though his freshman year had been halted by those examinations, which had so "jarred" his guardian. "I'll be twenty in September," he said. Evidently the thought of his increasing years gave him pleasure. That Eleanor's years were also increasing did not occur to him; and no wonder, for, compared to people like Mr. and Mrs. Houghton, Eleanor was young enough!—only thirty-nine. It was back in the 'nineties that she had met her husband's guardian, who, in those days, had been the owner of a cotton mill in Mercer, but who now, instead of making money, cultivated potatoes (and tried to paint). Eleanor knew the Houghtons when they were Mercer mill folk, and, as she said, this charming youngster—living then in Philadelphia—had been "a little boy"; now, here he was, her husband for "fifty-four minutes." And she was almost forty, and he was nineteen. That Henry Houghton, up on his mountain farm, pottering about in his big, dusty studio, and delving among his potatoes, would whistle, was to be expected.
"But who cares?" Maurice said. "It isn't his funeral."
"He'll think it's yours," she retorted, with a little laugh. She was not much given to laughter. Her life had been singularly monotonous and, having seen very little of the world, she had that self-distrust which is afraid to laugh unless other people are laughing, too. She taught singing at Fern Hill, a private school in Mercer's suburbs. She did not care for the older pupils, but she was devoted to the very little girls. She played wonderfully on the piano, and suffered from indigestion; her face was at times almost beautiful; she had a round, full chin, and a lovely red lower lip; her forehead was very white, with soft, dark hair rippling away from it. Certainly, she had moments of beauty. She talked very little; perhaps because she hadn't the chance to talk—living, as she did, with an aunt who monopolized the conversation. She had no close friends;—her shyness was so often mistaken for hauteur, that she did not inspire friendship in women of her own age, and Mrs. Newbolt's elderly acquaintances were merely condescending to her, and gave her good advice; so it was a negative sort of life. Indeed, her sky terrier, Bingo, and her laundress, Mrs. O'Brien, to whose crippled baby grandson she was endlessly kind, knew her better than any of the people among whom she lived. When Maurice Curtis, cramming in Mercer because Destiny had broken his tutor's leg there, and presenting (with the bored reluctance of a boy) a letter of introduction from his guardian to Mrs. Newbolt—when Maurice met Mrs. Newbolt's niece, something happened. Perhaps because he felt her starved longing for personal happiness, or perhaps her obvious pleasure in listening, silently, to his eager talk, touched his young vanity; whatever the reason was, the boy was fascinated by her. He had ("cussing," as he had expressed it to himself) accepted an invitation to dine with the "ancient dame" (again his phrase!)—and behold the reward of merit:—the niece!—a gentle, handsome woman, whose age never struck him, probably because her mind was as immature as his own. Before dinner was over Eleanor's silence—silence is very moving to youth, for who knows what it hides?—and her deep, still eyes, lured him like a mystery. Then, after dinner ("a darned good dinner," Maurice had conceded to himself) the calm niece sang, and instantly he knew that it was Beauty which hid in silence—and he was in love with her! He had dined with her on Tuesday, called on Wednesday, proposed on Friday;—it was all quite like Solomon Grundy! except that, although she had fallen in love with him almost as instantly as he had fallen in love with her, she had, over and over again, refused him. During the period of her refusals the boy's love glowed like a furnace; it brought both power and maturity into his fresh, ardent, sensitive face. He threw every thought to the winds—except the thought of rescuing his princess from Mrs. Newbolt's imprisoning bric-a-brac. As for his "cramming" the tutor into whose hands Mr. Houghton had committed his ward's very defective trigonometry and economics, Mr. Bradley, held in Mercer because of an annoying accident, said to himself that his intentions were honest, but if Curtis didn't turn up for three days running, he would utilize the time his pupil was paying for by writing a paper on "The Fourth Dimension."
Maurice was in some new dimension himself! Except "old Brad," he knew almost no one in Mercer, so he had no confidant; and because his passion was, perforce, inarticulate, his candid forehead gathered wrinkles of positive suffering, which made him look as old as Eleanor, who, dazed by the first very exciting thing that had ever happened to her,—the experience of being adored (and adored by a boy, which is a heady thing to a woman of her age!)—Eleanor was saying to herself a dozen times a day: "I mustn't say 'yes'! Oh, what shall I do?" Then suddenly there came a day when the rush of his passion decided what she would do....
Her aunt had announced that she was going to Europe. "I'm goin' to take you," Mrs. Newbolt said. "I don't know what would become of you if I left you alone! You are about as capable as a baby. That was a great phrase of your dear uncle Thomas's—'capable as a baby,' I'm perfectly sure the parlor ceilin' has got to be tinted this spring. When does your school close? We'll go the minute it closes. You can board Bingo with Mrs. O'Brien."
Eleanor, deeply hurt, was tempted to retort with the announcement that she needn't be "left alone"; she might get married! But she was silent; she never knew what to say when assailed by the older woman's tongue. She just wrote Maurice, helplessly, that she was going abroad.
He was panic-stricken. Going abroad? Uncle Henry's ancient dame was a she-devil, to carry her off! Then, in the midst of his anger, he recognized his opportunity: "The hell-cat has done me a good turn, I do believe! I'll get her! Bless the woman! I'll pay her passage myself, if she'll only go and never come back!"
It was on the heels of Mrs. Newbolt's candor about Eleanor's "capableness" that he swept her resistance away. "You've got to marry me," he told her; "that's all there is to it." He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a marriage license. "I'll call for you to-morrow at ten; we'll go to the mayor's office. I've got it all fixed up. So, you see there's no getting out of it."
"But," she protested, dazzled by the sheer, beautiful, impertinence of it, "Maurice, I can't—I won't—I—"
"You will," he said. "To-morrow's Saturday," he added, practically, "and there's no school, so you're free." He rose.... "Better leave a letter for your aunt. I'll be here at five minutes to ten. Be ready!" He paused and looked hard at her; caught her roughly in his arms, kissed her on her mouth, and walked out of the room.
The mere violence of it lifted her into the Great Adventure! When he commanded, "Be ready!" she, with a gasp, said, "Yes."
Well; they had gone to the mayor's office, and been married; then they had got on a car and ridden through Mercer's dingy outskirts to the end of the route in Medfield, where, beyond suburban uglinesses, there were glimpses of green fields.
Once as the car rushed along, screeching around curves and banging over switches, Eleanor said, "I've come out here four times a week for four years, to Fern Hill."
And Maurice said: "Well, that's over! No more school-teaching for you!"
She smiled, then sighed. "I'll miss my little people," she said.
But except for that they were silent. When they left the car, he led the way across a meadow to the bank of the river; there they sat down under the locust, and he kissed her, quietly; then, for a while, still dumb with the wonder of themselves, they watched the sky, and the sailing white clouds, and the river—flowing—flowing; and each other.
"Fifty-four minutes," he had said....
So they sat there and planned for the endless future—the "fifty-four years."
"When we have our golden wedding," he said, "we shall come back here, and sit under this tree—" He paused; he would be—let's see: nineteen, plus fifty, makes sixty-nine. He did not go farther with his mental arithmetic, and say thirty-nine plus fifty; he was thinking only of himself, not of her. In fifty years he would be, he told himself, an old man.
And what would happen in all these fifty golden years? "You know, long before that time, perhaps it won't be—just us?" he said.
The color leaped to her face; she nodded, finding no words in which to expand that joyous "perhaps," which touched the quick in her. Instantly that sum in addition which he had not essayed in his own mind, became unimportant in hers. What difference did the twenty severing years make, after all? Her heart rose with a bound—she had a quick vision of a little head against her bosom! But she could not put it into words. She only challenged, him:
"I am not clever like you. Do you think you can love a stupid person for fifty years?"
"For a thousand years!—but you're not stupid."
She looked doubtful; then went on confessing: "Auntie says I'm a dummy, because I don't talk very much. And I'm awfully timid. And she says I'm jealous."
"You don't talk because you're always thinking; that's one of the most fascinating things about you, Eleanor,—you keep me wondering what on earth you're thinking about. It's the mystery of you that gets me! And if you're 'timid'—well, so long as you're not afraid of me, the more scared you are, the better I like it. A man," said Maurice, "likes to feel that he protects his—his wife." He paused and repeated the glowing word ... "his wife!" For a moment he could not go on with their careless talk; then he was practical again. That word "protect" was too robust for sentimentality. "As for being jealous, that, about me, is a joke! And if you were, it would only mean that you loved me—so I would be flattered. I hope you'll be jealous! Eleanor, promise me you'll be jealous?" They both laughed; then he said: "I've made up my mind to one thing. I won't go back to college."
He was very matter of fact. "I'm a married man; I'm going to support my wife!" He ran his fingers through his thick blond hair in ridiculous pantomime of terrified responsibility. "Yes, sir! I'm out for dollars. Well, I'm glad I haven't any near relations to get on their ear, and try and mind my business for me. Of course," he ruminated, "Bradley will kick like a steer, when I tell him he's bounced! But that will be on account of money. Oh, I'll pay him, all same," he said, largely. "Yes; I'm going to get a job." His face sobered into serious happiness. "My allowance won't provide bones for Bingo! So it's business for me."
She looked a little frightened. "Oh, have I made you go to work?" She had never asked him about money; she had plunged into matrimony without the slightest knowledge of his income.
"I'll chuck Bradley, and I'll chuck college," he announced, "I've got to! Of course, ultimately, I'll have plenty of money. Mr. Houghton has dry-nursed what father left me, and he has done mighty well with it; but I can't touch it till I'm twenty-five—worse luck! Father had theories about a fellow being kept down to brass tacks and earning his living, before he inherited money another man had earned—that's the way he put it. Queer idea. So, I must get a job. Uncle Henry'll help me. You may bet on it that Mrs. Maurice Curtis shall not wash dishes, nor yet feed the swine, but live on strawberries, sugar, and—What's the rest of it?"
"I have a little money of my own," she said; "six hundred a year."
"It will pay for your hairpins," he said, and put out his hand and touched her hair—black, and very soft and wavy "but the strawberries I shall provide."
"I never thought about money," she confessed.
"Of course not! Angels don't think about money."
* * * * *
"So they were married"; and in the meadow, fifty-four minutes later, the sun and wind and moving shadows, and the river—flowing—flowing—heralded the golden years, and ended the saying: "lived happy ever afterward."
It was three days after the young husband, lying in the grass, his cheek on his wife's hand, had made his careless prophecy about "whistling," that Henry Houghton, jogging along in the sunshine toward Grafton for the morning mail, slapped a rein down on Lion's fat back, and whistled, placidly enough.... (But that was before he reached the post office.) His wife, whose sweet and rosy bulk took up most of the space on the seat, listened, smiling with content. When he was placid, she was placid; when he wasn't, which happened now and then, she was an alertly reasonable woman, defending him from himself, and wrenching from his hand, with ironic gayety, or rallying seriousness, the dagger of his discontent with what he called his "failure" in life—which was what most people called his success—a business career, chosen because the support of several inescapable blood relations was not compatible with his own profession of painting. All his training and hope had been centered upon art. The fact that, after renouncing it, an admirably managed cotton mill provided bread and butter for sickly sisters and wasteful brothers, to say nothing of his own modest prosperity, never made up to him for the career of a struggling and probably unsuccessful artist—which he might have had. He ran his cotton mill, and supported all the family undesirables until, gradually, death and marriage took the various millstones from around his neck; then he retired, as the saying is—although it was really setting sail again for life—to his studio (with a farmhouse attached) in the mountains. There had been a year of passionate work and expectation—but his pictures were dead. "I sold my birthright for a bale of cotton," he said, briefly.
But he still stayed on the farm, and dreamed in his studio and tried to teach his little, inartistic Edith to draw, and mourned. As for business, he said, "Go to the devil!"—except as he looked after Maurice Curtis's affairs; this because the boy's father had been his friend. But it was the consciousness of the bartered birthright and the dead pictures in his studio which kept him from "whistling" very often. However, on this June morning, plodding along between blossoming fields, climbing wooded hills, and clattering through dusky covered bridges, he was not thinking of his pictures; so, naturally enough, he whistled; a very different whistling from that which Maurice, lying in the grass beside his wife of fifty-four minutes, had foreseen for him—when the mail should be distributed! Once, just from sheer content, he stopped his:
"Did you ever ever ever In your life life life See the devil devil devil Or his wife wife wife—"
and turned and looked at his Mary.
"Nice day, Kit?" he said; and she said, "Lovely!" Then she brushed her elderly rosy cheek against his shabby coat and kissed it. They had been married for thirty years, and she had held up his hands as he placed upon the altar of a repugnant duty, the offering of a great renunciation. She had hoped that the birth of their last, and only living, child, Edith, would reconcile him to the material results of the renunciation; but he was as indifferent to money for his girl as he had been for himself.... So there they were, now, living rather carefully, in an old stone farmhouse on one of the green foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. The thing that came nearest to soothing the bruises on his mind was the possibilities he saw in Maurice.
"The inconsequence of the scamp amounts to genius!" he used to tell his Mary with admiring displeasure at one or another of Maurice's scrapes. "Heaven knows what he'll do before he gets to the top of Fool Hill, and begins to run on the State Road! Look at this mid-year performance. He ought to be kicked for flunking. He simply dropped everything except his music! Apparently he can't study. Even spelling is a matter of private judgment with Maurice! Oh, of course, I know I ought to have scalped him; his father would have scalped him. But somehow the scoundrel gets round me! I suppose its because, though he is provoking, he is never irritating. And he's as much of a fool as I was at his age! That keeps me fair to him. Well, he has stuff in him, that boy. He's as truthful as Edith; an appalling tribute, I know—but you like it in a cub. And there's no flapdoodle about him; and he never cried baby in his life. And he has imagination and music and poetry! Edith is a nice little clod compared to him."
The affection of these two people for Maurice could hardly have been greater if he had been their son. "Mother loves Maurice better 'an she loves me," Edith used to reflect; "I guess it's because he never gets muddy the way I do, and tracks dirt into the house. He wipes his feet."
"What do you suppose," Mrs. Houghton said, remembering this summing up of things, "Edith told me this morning that the reason I loved Maurice more than I loved her—"
"Yes; isn't she funny?—was because he 'wiped his feet when he came into the house.'"
Edith's father stopped whistling, and smiled: "That child is as practical as a shuttle; but she hasn't a mean streak in her!" he said, with satisfaction, and began to whistle again. "Nice girl," he said, after a while; "but the most rationalizing youngster! I hope she'll get foolish before she falls in love. Mary, one of these days, when she grows up, perhaps she and Maurice—?"
"Matchmaker!" she said, horrified; then objected: "Can't she rationalize and fall in love too? I'm rather given to reason myself, Henry."
"Yes, honey; you are now; but you were as sweet a fool as anybody when you fell in love, thank God." She laughed, and he said, resignedly, "I suppose you'll have an hour's shopping to do? You have only one of the vices of your sex, Mary, you have the 'shopping mind.' However, with all thy faults I love thee still.... We'll go to the post office first; then I can read my letters while you are colloguing with the storekeepers."
Mrs. Houghton, looking at her list, agreed, and when he got out for the mail she was still checking off people and purchases; it was only when she had added one or two more errands that she suddenly awoke to the fact that he was very slow in coming back with the letters. "Stupid!" she thought, "opening your mail in the post office, instead of keeping it to read while I'm shopping!"—but even as she reproached him, he came out and climbed into the buggy, in very evident perturbation.
"Where do you want to go?" he said; she, asking no questions (marvelous woman!) told him. He said "G'tap!" angrily; Lion backed, and the wheel screeched against the curb. "Oh, g'on!" he said. Lion switched his tail, caught a rein under it, and trotted off. Mr. Houghton leaned over the dashboard, swore softly, and gave the horse a slap with the rescued rein. But the outburst loosened the dumb distress that had settled upon him in the post office; he gave a despairing grunt:
"Well! Maurice has come the final cropper."
"Smith's next, dear," she said; "What is it, Henry?"
"He's gone on the rocks (druggist Smith, or fish Smith?)"
"Druggist. Has Maurice been drinking?" She could not keep the anxiety out of her voice.
"Drinking? He could be as drunk as a lord and I wouldn't—Whoa, Lion!... Get me some shaving soap, Kit!" he called after her, as she went into the shop.
When she came back with her packages and got into the buggy, she said, quietly, "Tell me, Henry."
"He has simply done what I put him in the way of doing when I gave him a letter of introduction to that Mrs. Newbolt, in Mercer."
"Newbolt? I don't remember—"
"Yes, you do. Pop eyes. Fat. Talked every minute, and everything she said a nonsequitur. I used to wonder why her husband didn't choke her. He was on our board. Died the year we came up here. Talked to death, probably."
"Oh yes. I remember her. Well?"
"I thought she might make things pleasant for Maurice while he was cramming. He doesn't know a soul in Mercer, and Bradley's game leg wouldn't help out with sociability. So I gave him letters to two or three people. Mrs. Newbolt was one of them. I hated her, because she dropped her g's; but she had good food, and I thought she'd ask him to dinner once in a while."
"She did. And he's married her niece."
"What! Without your consent! I'm shocked that Mrs. Newbolt permitted—"
"Probably her permission wasn't asked, any more than mine."
"You mean an elopement? How outrageous in Maurice!" Mrs. Houghton said.
Her husband agreed. "Abominable! Mary, do you mind if I smoke?"
"Very much; but you'll do it all the same. I suppose the girl's a mere child?" Then she quailed. "Henry!—she's respectable, isn't she? I couldn't bear it, if—if she was some—dreadful person."
He sheltered a sputtering match in his curving hand and lighted a cigar; then he said, "Oh, I suppose she's respectable enough; but she's certainly 'dreadful.' He says she's a music teacher. Probably caught him that way. Music would lead Maurice by the nose. Confound that boy! And his father trusted me." His face twitched with distress. "As for being a 'mere child,'—there; read his letter."
She took it, fumbling about for her spectacles; halfway through, she gave an exclamation of dismay. "'A few years older'?—she must be twenty years older!"
"Good heavens, Mary!"
"Well, perhaps not quite twenty, but—"
Henry Houghton groaned. "I'll tell Bradley my opinion of him as a coach."
"My dear, Mr. Bradley couldn't have prevented it.... Yes; I remember her perfectly. She came to tea with Mrs. Newbolt several times. Rather a temperamental person, I thought."
"'Temperamental'? May the Lord have mercy on him!" he said. "Yes, it comes back to me. Dark eyes? Looked like one of Rossetti's women?"
"Yes. Handsome, but a little stupid. She's proved that by marrying Maurice! Oh, what a fool!" Then she tried to console him: "But one of the happiest marriages I ever knew, was between a man of thirty and a much older woman."
"But not between a boy of nineteen and a much older woman! The trouble is not her age but his youth. Why didn't she adopt him?... I bet the aunt's cussing, too."
"Probably. Well, we've got to think what to do," Mary Houghton said.
"Do? What do you mean? Get a divorce for him?"
"He's just married; he doesn't want a divorce yet," she said, simply; and her husband laughed, in spite of his consternation.
"Oh, lord, I wish I was asleep! I've always been afraid he'd go high-diddle-diddling off with some shady girl;—but I swear, that would have been better than marrying his grandmother! Mary, what I can't understand, is the woman. He's a child, almost; and vanity at having a woman of forty fall in love with him explains him. And, besides, Maurice is no Eurydice; music would lead him into hell, not out of it. It's the other fool that puzzles me."
His wife sighed; "If her mind keeps young, it won't matter so much about her body."
"My dear," he said, dryly, "human critters are human critters. In ten years it will be an impossible situation."
But again she contradicted him: "No! Unhappiness is possible; but not inevitable!"
"Dear Goose, may a simple man ask how it is to be avoided?"
"By unselfishness," she said; "no marriage ever went on the rocks where both 'human critters' were unselfish! But I hope this poor, foolish woman's mind will keep young. If it doesn't, well, Maurice will just have to be tactful. If he is, it may not be so very bad," she said, with determined optimism.
"Kit, when a man has to be 'tactful' with his wife, God help him!—or a woman with her husband," he added in a sudden tender afterthought. "We've never been 'tactful' with each other, Mary?" She smiled, and put her cheek against his shoulder. "'Tactfulness' between a husband and wife," said Henry Houghton, "is confession that their marriage is a failure. You may tell 'em so, from me."
"You may tell them yourself!" she retorted. "What are they going to live on?" she pondered "Can his allowance be increased?"
"It can't. You know his father's will. He won't get his money until he's twenty-five."
"He'll have to go to work," she said; "which means not going back to college, I suppose?"
"Yes," he said, grimly; "who would support his lady-love while he was in college? And it means giving up his music," he added.
"If he makes as much out of his renunciation as you have out of yours," she said, calmly, "we may bless this poor woman yet."
"Oh, you old humbug," he told her—but he smiled.
Then she repeated to him an old, old formula for peace; "'Consider the stars,' Henry, and young foolishness will seem very small. Maurice's elopement won't upset the universe."
They were both silent for a while; then Mary Houghton said, "I'll write the invitation to them; but you must second it when you answer his letter."
"Invitation? What invitation?"
"Why, to come and stay at Green Hill until you can find something for him to do."
"I'll be hanged if I invite her! I'll have nothing to do with her! Maurice can come, of course; but he can't bring—"
His wife laughed, and he, too, gave a reluctant chuckle. "I suppose I've got to?" he groaned.
"Of course, you've got to!" she said.
The rest of the ride back to the old stone house among its great trees, halfway up the mountain, was silent. Mrs. Houghton was thinking what room she would give the bride and groom—for the little room Maurice had had in all his vacations since he became her husband's ward was not suitable. "Edith will have to let them have her room," she thought. She knew she could count on Edith not to make a fuss. "It's such a comfort that Edith has sense," she ruminated aloud.
But her husband was silent; there was no more whistling for Henry Houghton that day.
Edith and her fourteen-year-old neighbor, Johnny Bennett, had climbed into the old black-heart cherry tree—(Johnny always conceded that Edith was a good climber—"for a girl.") But when they saw Lion, tugging up the road, Edith, who was economical with social amenities, told her guest to go home. "I don't want you any longer," she said; "father and mother are coming!" And with that she rushed around to the stable door, just in time to meet the returning travelers, and ask a dozen questions—the first:
"Did you get a letter from Maurice?"
But when her father threw the reins down on Lion's back, and said, briefly, "Can't you unharness him yourself, Buster?" she stuck out her tongue, opened her eyes wide, and said nothing except, "Yes, father." Then she proceeded, with astonishing speed, to put Lion into his stall, run the buggy into the carriage house, and slam the stable door, after which she tore up to her mother's room.
"Mother! Something has bothered father!"
"Well, yes," Mrs. Houghton said; "a little. Maurice is married."
Edith's lips fell apart; "Maurice? Married? Who to? Did she wear a veil? I don't see why father minds."
Mrs. Houghton, standing in front of her mirror, said, dryly: "There are things more important than veils, when it comes to getting married. In the first place, they eloped—"
"Oh, how lovely! I am going to elope when I get married!"
"I hope you won't have such bad taste. Of course they ought not to have got married that way. But the thing that bothers your father, is that the lady Maurice has married is—is older than he."
"How much older?" Edith demanded; "a year?"
"I don't just know. Probably twenty years older."
Edith was silent, rapidly adding up nineteen and twenty; then she gasped, "Thirty-nine!"
"Well, about that; and father is sorry, because Maurice can't go back to college. He will have to go into business."
Edith saw no cause for regret in this. "Guess he's glad not to have to learn things! But why weren't we invited to the wedding? I always meant to be Maurice's bridesmaid."
Mrs. Houghton said she didn't know. Edith was silent, for a whole minute. Then she said, soberly:
"I suppose father's sorry 'cause she'll die so soon, she's so old? And then Maurice will feel awfully. Poor Maurice! Well, I'll live with him, and comfort him."
"My dear, I'm fifty!" Mrs. Houghton said, much amused.
"Oh, well, you—" Edith demurred; "that's different. You're my mother, and you—" She paused; "I never thought of you being old, or dying, ever. And yet I suppose you are rather old?" She pondered. "I suppose some day you'll die? Mother!—promise me you won't!" she said, quaveringly.
"Edith, don't be a goose!" Mrs. Houghton said, laughing—but she turned and kissed the rosy, anxious face, "Maurice's wife isn't old at all. She's quite young. It's only that he is so much younger."
Edith lapsed into silence. She was very quiet for the rest of that summer morning. Just before dinner she went across the west pasture to Doctor Bennett's house, and, hailing Johnny, told him the news. His indifference—for he only looked at her, with his mild, nearsighted brown eyes, and said, "Huh?"—irritated her so that she would not confide her dismay at Maurice's approaching widowerhood, but ran home to a sympathetic kitchen: "Katy! Maurice got eloped!"
Katy was much more satisfactory than Johnny; she said, "God save us! Mr. Maurice eloped? Who with, then? Well, well!" But Edith was still abstracted. Time, as related to life, had acquired significance. At dinner she regarded her father with troubled eyes. He, too, was old, like Maurice's wife. He, too, as well as the bride, and her mother, would die, sometime. And she and Maurice would have such awful grief!... Something tightened in her throat; "Please 'scuse me," she said, in a muffled voice; and, slipping out of her chair, made a dash for the back door, and ran as hard as she could to her chicken house. The little place was hot, and smelled of feathers; through the windows, cobwebbed and dusty, the sunshine fell dimly on the hard earth floor, and on an empty plate or two and a rusty, overturned tin pan. Here, sitting on a convenient box, she could think things out undisturbed: Maurice, and his lovely, dying Bride; herself, orphaned and alone; Johnny Bennett, indifferent to all this oncoming grief! Probably Maurice was worrying about it all the time! How long would the Bride live? Suddenly she remembered her mother's age, and had a revulsion of hope for Maurice. Perhaps his wife would live to be as old as mother? "Why, I hadn't thought of that! Well, then, she will live—let's see: thirty-nine from fifty leaves eleven—yes; the Bride will live eleven years!" Why, that wasn't so terrible, after all. "That's as long as I have been alive!" Obviously it would not be necessary to take care of Maurice for quite a good while. "I guess," she reflected, "I'll have some children by that time. And maybe I'll be married, too, for Maurice won't need me for eleven years. But I don't know what I'd do with my husband then?" She frowned; a husband would be bothering, if she had to go and live with Maurice. "Oh, well, probably my husband will be so old, he'll die about the time Maurice's wife does." She had meant to marry Johnny. "But I won't. He's too young. He's only three years older 'an me. He might live too long. I must get an old husband. I'll tell Johnny about it to-morrow. I'll wear mourning," she thought; "a long veil! It's so interesting. But not over my face—you can't see through it, and it isn't sense not to be able to see." (The test Edith applied to conduct was always, "Is it sense?") "Of course I shall feel badly about my husband; but I've got to take care of Maurice.... Yes; I must get an old one," she thought. "I must get one as old as the Bride. If they'd only waited, the Bride could have married my husband!"
But this line of thought was too complicated; and, besides, she had so entirely cheered up that she practically forgot death. She began to count how much money her mother owed her for eggs—which reminded her to look into the nests; and when, in spite of a clucking remonstrance, she put her hand under a feathery breast and touched the hot smoothness of a new-laid egg, she felt perfectly happy. "I guess I'll go and get some floating-island," she thought. "Oh, I hope they haven't eaten it all up!"
With the egg in her hand, she rushed back to the dining room, and was reassured by the sight of the big glass dish, still all creamy yellow and fluffy white.
"Edith," Mrs. Houghton said, "you won't mind letting Maurice and Eleanor have your room, will you, dear?"
"Is her name 'Eleanor'? I think it's a perfectly beautiful name! No, I'd love to give her my room! Mother, she won't be as old as you are for eleven years, and that's as long as I have been alive. So I won't worry about Maurice just yet. Mother, may I have two helpings? When are they coming?"
"They haven't been asked yet," her father said, grimly. "I'm not going to concoct a letter, Mary, for a week. Let 'em worry! Maurice, confound him!—has never worried in his life. Everything rolls off him like water off a duck's back. It will do him good to chew nails for a while. I wish I was asleep!"
"Why, father!" Edith said, aghast; "I don't believe you want the Bride!"
"You're a very intelligent young person," her father said, scratching a match under the table and lighting a cigar.
"But, my dear," his wife said, "has it occurred to you that it may be as unpleasant for the Bride to come, as for you to have her? Henry! That's the third since breakfast!"
"Wrong for once, Mrs. Houghton. It's the fourth."
"I want the Bride," said Edith.
Her mother laughed. "Come along, honey," she said, putting her hand on her husband's shoulder, "and tell me what to say to her."
"Say she's a harpy, and tell her to go to the—"
"My dear, like Mr. F.'s aunt, 'I hate a fool.' Oh, I'll tell you what to say: Say, 'Mr. F.'s aunt will send her a wedding present.' That's friendly, isn't it?"
"Better not be too literary in public," his wife cautioned him, with a significant glance at Edith, who was all ears.
When, laughing, they left the table, their daughter scraping her plate, pondered thus: "I suppose Mr. F. is the Bride's father. I wonder what present his aunt will give her? I wonder what 'F' stands for—Frost? Fuller? Father and mother don't want the Bride to come; and mother thinks the Bride don't want to come. So why should they ask her to come? And why should she come? I wouldn't," Edith said; "but I hope she will, for I love her! And oh, I hope she'll bring her harp! I've never seen a harpy. But people are funny," Edith summed it up; "inviting people and not wanting 'em; and visiting 'em and not wanting to. It ain't sense," said Edith.
In spite of his declaration of indifference to the feelings of his guardian, the married boy was rapidly acquiring that capacity for "worry" which Mr. Houghton desired to develop in him. What would the mail bring him from Green Hill? It brought nothing for a week—a week in which he experienced certain bad moments which encouraged "worry" to a degree that made his face distinctly older than on that morning under the locust tree, when he had been married for fifty-four minutes. The first of these educating moments came on Monday, when he went to see his tutor, to say that he was—well, he was going to stop grinding.
"What?" said Mr. Bradley, puzzled.
"I'm going to chuck college, sir," Maurice said, and smiled broadly, with the rollicking certainty of sympathy that a puppy shows when approaching an elderly mastiff.
"Chuck college! What's the matter?" the mastiff said, putting a protecting hand over his helpless leg, for Maurice's restlessness—tramping about, his hands in his pockets—was a menace to the plastered member.
"I'm going into business," the youngster said; "I—Well; I've got married, and—"
"—so, of course, I've got to go to work."
"See here, what are you talking about?"
The uneasy color sprang into Maurice's face, he stood still, and the grin disappeared. When he said explicitly what he was "talking about," Mr. Bradley's angry consternation was like the unexpected snap of the old dog; it made Eleanor's husband feel like the puppy. "I ought to have rounded him up," Mr. Bradley was saying to himself; "Houghton will hold me responsible!" And even while making unpleasant remarks to the bridegroom, he was composing, in his mind, a letter to Mr. Houghton about the helplessness incidental to a broken leg, which accounted for his failure in "rounding up." "I couldn't get on to his trail!" he was exonerating himself.
When Maurice retreated, looking like a schoolboy, it took him a perceptible time to regain his sense of age and pride and responsibility. He rushed back to the hotel—where he had plunged into the extravagance of the "bridal suite,"—to pour out his hurt feelings to Eleanor, and while she looked at him in one of her lovely silences he railed at Bradley, and said the trouble with him was that he was sore about money! "He needn't worry! I'll pay him," Maurice said, largely. And then forgot Bradley in the rapture of kissing Eleanor's hand. "As if we cared for his opinion!" he said.
"We don't care!" she said, joyously. Her misgivings had vanished like dew in the hot sun. Old Mrs. O'Brien had done her part in dissipating them. While Maurice was bearding his tutor, Eleanor had gone across town to her laundress's, to ask if Mrs. O'Brien would take Bingo as a boarder—. "I can't have him at the hotel," she explained, and then told the great news:—"I'm going to live there, because I—I'm married,"—upon which she was kissed, and blessed, and wept over! "The gentleman is a little younger than I am," she confessed, smiling; and Mrs. O'Brien said:
"An' what difference does that make? He'll only be lovin' ye hotter than an old fellow with the life all gone out o' him!"
Eleanor said, laughing, "Yes, that's true!" and cuddled the baby grandson's head against her breast.
"You'll be happy as a queen!" said Mrs. O'Brien; and "in a year from now you'll have something better to take care of than Bingo—he'll be jealous!"
But she hardly heeded Mrs. O'Brien and her joyful prophecy of Bingo's approaching jealousy; having taken the dive, she had risen into the light and air, and now she forgot the questioning depths! She was on the crest of contented achievement. She even laughed to think that she had ever hesitated about marrying Maurice. Absurd! As if the few years between them were of the slightest consequence! Mrs. O'Brien was right.... So she smoothed over Maurice's first bad moment with an indifference as to Mr. Bradley's opinion which was most reassuring to him. (Yet once in a while she thought of Mr. Houghton, and bit her lip.)
The next bad moment neither she nor Maurice could dismiss so easily; it came in the interview with her astounded aunt, whose chief concern (when she read the letter which Eleanor had left on her pincushion) was lest the Houghtons would think she had inveigled the boy into marrying her niece. To prove that she had not, Mrs. Newbolt told the bride and groom that she would have nothing more to do with Eleanor! It was when the fifty-four minutes had lengthened into three days that they had gone, after supper, to see her. Eleanor, supremely satisfied, with no doubts, now about the wisdom of what she had done, was nervous only as to the effect of her aunt's temper upon Maurice; and he, full of a bravado of indifference which confessed the nervousness it denied, was anxious only as to the effect of the inevitable reproaches upon Eleanor. Their five horrid minutes of waiting in the parlor for Mrs. Newbolt's ponderous step on the stairs, was broken by Bingo's dashing, with ear-piercing barks, into the room: Eleanor took him on her knee, and Maurice, giving the little black nose a kindly squeeze, looked around in pantomimic horror of the obese upholstery, and Rogers groups on the tops of bookcases full of expensively bound and unread classics.
"How have you stood it?" he said to his wife; adding, under his breath, "If she's nasty to you, I'll wring her neck!"
She was very nasty. "I'm not a party to it," Mrs. Newbolt said; she sat, panting, on a deeply cushioned sofa, and her wheezy voice came through quivering double chins; her protruding pale eyes snapped with anger. "I shall tell you exactly what I think of you, Eleanor, for, as my dear mother used to say, if I have a virtue it is candor; I think you are a puffect fool. As for Mr. Curtis, I no more thought of protectin' him than I would think of protectin' a baby in a perambulator from its nursemaid! Bingo was sick at his stomach this mornin'. You've ruined the boy's life." Eleanor cringed, but Maurice was quite steady:
"We will not discuss it, if you please. I will merely say that I dragged Eleanor into it; I made her marry me. She refused me repeatedly. Come, Eleanor."
He rose, but Mrs. Newbolt, getting heavily on to her small feet, and talking all the time, walked over to the doorway and blocked their retreat. "You needn't think I'll do anything for you!" she said to her niece; "I shall write to Mr. Houghton and tell him so. I shall tell him he isn't any more disgusted with this business than I am. And you can take Bingo with you!"
"I came to get him," Eleanor said, faintly.
"Come, Eleanor," Maurice said; and Mrs. Newbolt, puffing and talking, had to make way for them. As they went out of the door she called, angrily:
"Here! Stop! I want to give Bingo a chocolate drop!"
They didn't stop. In the street on the way to Bingo's new home, Eleanor, holding her little dog in her arms, was blind with tears, but Maurice effervesced into extravagant ridicule. His opinion of Mrs. Newbolt, her parlor, her ponderosity, and her missing g's, exhausted his vocabulary of opprobrious adjectives; but Eleanor was silent, just putting up a furtive handkerchief to wipe her eyes. It was dark, and he drew her hand through his arm and patted it.
"Don't worry, Star. Uncle Henry is white! She can write to him all she wants to! I'm betting that we'll get an invitation to come right up to Green Hill."
She said nothing, but he knew she was trembling. As they entered Mrs. O'Brien's alley, they paused where it was dark enough, halfway between gaslights, for a man to put his arm around his wife's waist and kiss her. (Bingo growled.)
"Eleanor! I've a great mind to go back to that hell-cat, and tell her what I think of her!"
"No. Very likely she's right. I—I have injured you. Oh, Maurice, if I have—"
"You'd have injured me a damn sight more if you hadn't married me!" he said.
But for the moment her certainty that her marriage was a glorious and perfect thing, collapsed; her voice was a broken whisper:
"If I've spoiled your life—she says I have;—I'll ... kill myself, Maurice." She spoke with a sort of heavy calmness, that made a small, cold thrill run down his back; he burst into passionate protest:
"All I am, or ever can be, will be because you love me! Darling, when you say things like—like what you said, I feel as if you didn't love me—"
Of course the reproach tautened her courage; "I do! I do! But—"
"Then never say such a wicked, cruel thing again!"
It was when Bingo had been left with Mrs. O'Brien that, on their way back to the hotel, Maurice, in a burst of enthusiasm, invited his third bad moment: "I am going to have a rattling old dinner party to celebrate your escape from the hag! How about Saturday night?"
She protested that he was awfully extravagant; but she cheered up. After all, what difference did it make what a person like Auntie thought! "But who will you ask?" she said. "I suppose you don't know any men here? And I don't, either."
He admitted that he had only two or three acquaintances in Mercer—"but I have a lot in Philadelphia. You shan't live on a desert island, Nelly!"
"Ah, but I'd like to—with you! I don't want anyone but you, in the world," she said, softly.
He thrilled at the wonder of that: she would be contented, with him,—on a desert island! Oh, if he could only always be enough for her! He vowed to himself, in sudden boyish solemnity, that he would always be enough for her. Aloud, he said he thought he could scratch up two or three fellows.
Then Eleanor's apprehension spoke: "What will Mr. Houghton say?"
"Oh, he's all right," Maurice said, resolutely hiding his own apprehension. He could hide it, but he could not forget it. Even while arranging for his dinner party, and plunging into the expense of a private dining room, he was thinking, of his guardian; "Will he kick?" Aloud he said, "I've asked three fellows, and you ask three girls."
"I don't know many girls," she said, anxiously.
"How about that girl you spoke to on the street yesterday? (If Uncle Henry could only see her, he'd be crazy about her!)"
"Rose Ellis? Well, yes; but she's rather young."
"Oh, that's all right," Maurice assured her. "(I wish I hadn't told him she is older than I am. Trouble with me is, I always plunk out the truth!) The fellows like 'em young," he said. Then he told her who the fellows were: "I don't know 'em very well; they're just boys; not in college. Younger than I am, except Tom Morton. Mort's twenty, and the brainiest man I know. And Hastings has a bag of jokes—well, not just for ladies," said Maurice, grinning, "and you'll like Dave Brown. You rake in three girls. We'll have a stunning spread, and then go to the theater." He caught her in his arms and romped around the room with her, then dropped her into a chair, and watched her wiping away tears of helpless laughter.
"Yes—I'll rake in the girls!" she gasped.
She wasn't very successful in her invitations. "I asked Rose, but I had to ask her mother, too," she said; "and one of the teachers at the Medfield school."
Maurice looked doubtful. Rose was all right; but the other two? "Aren't they somewhat faded flowers?"
"They're about my age," Eleanor teased him. As for Maurice, he thought that it didn't really matter about the ladies, faded or not; they were Eleanor's end of the shindy. "Spring chickens are Mort's meat," he said...
The three rather recent acquaintances who were Maurice's end of the shindy, had all gaped, and then howled, when told that the dinner was to celebrate his marriage. "I got spliced kind of in a hurry," he explained; "so I couldn't have any bachelor blow-out; but my—my—my wife, Mrs. Curtis, I mean—and I, thought we'd have a spree, to show I am an old married man."
The fellows, after the first amazement, fell on him with all kinds of ragging: Who was she? Was she out of baby clothes? Would she come in a perambulator?
"Shut up!" said the bridegroom, hilariously. He went home to Eleanor tingling with pride. "I want you to be perfectly stunning, Star! Of course you always are; but rig up in your best duds! I'm going to make those fellows cross-eyed with envy. I wonder if you could sing, just once, after dinner? I want them to hear you! (Mr. Houghton will love her voice!)"
Eleanor—who had stopped counting the minutes of married life now, for, this being the sixth day of bliss, the arithmetic was too much for her—was as excited about the dinner as he was. Yet, like him, under the excitement, was a little tremor: "They will be angry because—because we eloped!" Any other reason for anger she would not formulate. Sometimes her anxiety was audible: "Do you suppose Auntie has written to Mr. Houghton?" And again: "What will he say?" Maurice always replied, with exuberant indifference, that he didn't know, and he didn't care!
"I care, if he is horrid to you!" Eleanor said "He'll probably say it was wicked to elope?"
Mr. Houghton continued to say nothing; and the "care" Maurice denied, dogged all his busy interest in his dinner—for which he had made the plans, as Eleanor, until the term ended, was obliged to go out to Medfield to give her music lessons; besides, "planning" was not her forte! But in the thrill of excitement about the dinner and in the mounting adventure of being happy, she was able to forget her fear that Mr. Houghton might be "horrid" to Maurice. If the Houghtons didn't like an elopement, it would mean that they had no romance in them! She was absorbed in her ardent innocent purpose of "impressing" Maurice's friends, not from vanity, but because she wanted to please him. As she dressed that evening, all her self-distrust vanished, and she smiled at herself in the mirror for sheer delight, for his sake, in her dark, shining eyes, and the red loveliness of her full lip. In this wholly new experience of feeling, not only happy, but important,—she forgot Mrs. Newbolt, sailing angrily for Europe that very day, and was not even anxious about the Houghtons! After all, what difference did it make what such people thought of elopements? "Fuddy-duddies!" she said to herself, using Maurice's slang with an eager sense of being just as young as he was.
When the guests arrived and they all filed into the private and very expensive dining room, Eleanor looked indeed quite "stunning"; her shyness did not seem shyness, but only a sort of proud beauty of silence, which might cover Heaven knows what deeps of passion and of knowledge! Little Rose was glowing and simpering, and the two older ladies were giving each other significant glances. Maurice's "fellows," shepherded by their host, shambled speechlessly along in the background. The instant that they saw the bride they had fallen into dumbness. Brown said, under his breath to Hastings, "Gosh!" And Hastings gave Morton a thrust in the ribs, which Morton's dignity refused to notice; later, when he was at Eleanor's right, the flattery of her eagerly attentive silence instantly won him. Maurice had so expatiated to her upon Morton's brains, that she was really in awe of him—of which, of course, Morton was quite aware! It was so exhilarating to his twenty years that he gave his host a look of admiring congratulation—and Maurice's pride rose high!—then fell; for, somehow, his dinner wouldn't "go"! He watched the younger men turn frankly rude shoulders to the older ladies, who did their best to be agreeable. He caught stray words: Eleanor's efforts to talk as Rose talked—Rose's dog was "perfectly sweet," but "simply awful"; then a dog story; "wasn't that killing?" And Eleanor: she once had a cat—"perfectly frightfully cunning!" said Eleanor, stumbling among the adverbs of adolescence.
At Rose's story the young men roared, but Eleanor's cat awoke no interest. Then one of the "faded flowers" spoke to Brown, who said, vaguely, "What, ma'am?"
The other lady was murmuring in Maurice's ear:
"What is your college?"
Maurice trying to get Rose's eye, so that he might talk to her and give the boys a chance to do their duty, said, distractedly, "Princeton. Say, Hastings! Tell Mrs. Ellis about the miner who lost his shirt—"
Mrs. Ellis looked patient, and Hastings, dropping into agonized shyness, said, "Oh, I can't tell stories!"
After that, except for Morton's philosophical outpourings to the listening Eleanor, most of the dreary occasion of eating poor food, served by a waiter who put his thumb into things, was given up to the stifled laughter of the girl and boys, and to conversation between the other two guests, who were properly arch because of the occasion, but disappointed in their dinner, and anxious to shake their heads and lift shocked hands as soon as they could get out of their hostess's sight.
For Maurice, the whole endless hour was a seesaw between the past and the present, between his new dignity and his old irresponsibility. He tried—at first with boisterous familiarity, then with ponderous condescension—to draw his friends out. What would Eleanor think of them—the idiots! And what would she think of him, for having such asinine friends? He hoped Mort was showing his brains to her! He mentally cursed Hastings because he did not produce his jokes; as for Brown, he was a kid. "I oughtn't to have asked him! What will Eleanor think of him!" He was thankful when dessert came and the boys stopped their fatuous murmurings to little Rose, to gorge themselves with ice cream. He talked loudly to cover up their silence, and glanced constantly at his watch, in the hope that it was time to pack 'em all off to the theater! Yet, even with his acute discomfort, he had moments of pride—for there was Eleanor sitting at the head of the table, silent and handsome, and making old Mort crazy about her! In spite of those asses of boys, he was very proud. He had simply made a mistake in inviting Hastings and Brown; "Tom Morton's all right," he told himself; "but, great Scott! how young those other two are!"
When the evening was over (the theater part of it was a success, for the play was good, and Maurice had nearly bankrupted himself on a box), and he and Eleanor were alone, he drew her down on the little sofa of their sitting room, and worshiped. "Oh, Star, how wonderful you are!"
"Did I do everything right?" She was breathless with happiness. "I tried so hard! But I can't talk. I never know what to say."
"You were perfect! And they were all such idiots—except Mort. Mort told me you were very temperamental, and had a wonderful mind. I said, 'You bet she has!' The old ladies were pills."
"Oh, Maurice, you goose!... Maurice, what will Mr. Houghton say?"
"Hell say, 'Bless you, my children!' Nelly, what was the matter with the dinner?"
"Matter? Why, it was perfect! It was"—she made a dash for some of his own words—"simply corking! Though perhaps Rose was a little too young for it. Didn't you enjoy it?" she demanded, astonished.
He said that if she enjoyed it, that was all he cared about! He didn't tell her—perhaps he didn't know it himself—that his own lack of enjoyment was due to his inarticulate consciousness that he had not belonged anywhere at that dinner table. He was too old—and he was too young. The ladies talked down to him, and Brown and Hastings were polite to him. "Damn 'em, polite! Well," he thought, "'course, they know that a man in my position isn't in their class. But—" After a while he found himself thinking: "Those hags Eleanor raked in had no manners. Talked to me about my 'exams'! I'm glad I snubbed the old one, I don't think Rose was too young," he said, aloud. "Oh, Star, you are wonderful!"
And she, letting her hair fall cloudlike over her shoulders, silently held out her arms to him. Instantly his third bad moment vanished.
But a fourth was on its way; even as he kissed that white shoulder, he was thinking of the letter which must certainly come from Mr. Houghton in a day or two. "What will he get off?" he asked himself; "probably old Brad and Mrs. Newbolt have fed oats to him, so he'll kick—but what do I care? Not a hoot!" Thus encouraging himself, he encouraged Eleanor:
"Don't worry! Uncle Henry'll write and beg me to bring you up to Green Hill."
The fifty-four minutes of married life had stretched into eight days, and Maurice had chewed the educating nails of worry pretty thoroughly before that "begging" letter from Henry Houghton arrived. There was an inclosure in it from Mrs. Houghton, and the young man, down in the dark lobby of the hotel, with his heart in his mouth, read what both old friends had to say—then rushed upstairs, two steps at a time, to make his triumphant announcement to his wife:
"What did I tell you? Uncle Henry's white!" He gave her a hug; then, plugging his pipe full of tobacco, handed her the letters, and sat down to watch the effect of them upon her; there was no more "worry" for Maurice! But Eleanor, standing by the window silhouetted against the yellow twilight, caught her full lower lip between her teeth as she read:
"Of course," Mr. Houghton wrote—(it had taken him the week he had threatened to "concoct" his letter, which he asked his wife if he might not sign "Mr. F.'s aunt." "I bet she doesn't know her Dickens; it won't convey anything to her," he begged; "I'll cut out two cigars a day if you'll let me do it?" She would not let him, so the letter was perfectly decorous.)—"Of course it was not the proper way to treat an old friend, and marriage is too serious a business to be entered into in this way. Also I am sorry that there is any difference in age between you and your wife. But that is all in the past, and Mrs. Houghton and I wish you every happiness. We are looking forward to seeing you next month." ... ("Exactly," he explained to his Mary, "as I look forward to going to the dentist's. You tell 'em so.")
As Mrs. Houghton declined to "tell 'em," Eleanor, reading the friendly words, was able to say, "I don't think he's angry?"
"'Course not!" said Maurice.
Then she opened the other letter.
My dear boy,—I wish you hadn't got married in such a hurry; Edith is dreadfully disappointed not to have had the chance "to be your bridesmaid"! You must give us an opportunity soon to know your wife. Of course you must both come to Green Hill as usual, for your vacation.
"She is furious," said Eleanor. "She thinks it's dreadful to have eloped." She had turned away from him, and was looking out across the slow current of the river at the furnaces on the opposite bank—it was the same river, that, ten days ago, had run sparkling and lisping over brown depths and sunny shallows past their meadow. Her face lightened and darkened as the sheeting violet and orange flames from the great smokestacks roared out against the sky, and fell, and rose again. The beauty of them caught Maurice's eye, and he really did not notice what she was saying, until he caught the words: "Mrs. Houghton's like Auntie—she thinks I've injured you—" Before he could get on his feet to go and take her in his arms, and deny that preposterous word, she turned abruptly and came and sat on his knee; then, with a sort of sob, let herself sink against his breast. "But oh, I did so want to be happy!—and you made me do it."
He gave her a quick squeeze, and chuckled: "You bet I made you!" he said; he pushed her gently to her feet, and got up and walked about the room, his hands in his pockets. "As for Mrs. Houghton, you'll love her. She never fusses; she just says, 'Consider the stars.' I do hope you'll like them, Eleanor," he ended, anxiously. He was still in that state of mind where the lover hopes that his beloved will approve of his friends. Later on, when he and she love each other more, and so are more nearly one, he hopes that his friends will approve of his beloved, even as he used to be anxious that they should approve of him. "I do awfully want you to like 'em at Green Hill! We'll go the minute your school closes."
"Must we?" she said, nervously.
"I'm afraid we've got to," he said; "you see, I must find out about ways and means. And Edith would be furious if we didn't come," he ended, chuckling.
"Is she nice?"
"Why, yes," he said; "she's just a child, of course. Only eleven. But she and I have great times. We have a hut on the mountain; we go up for a day, and Edith cooks things. She's a bully cook. Her beloved Johnny Bennett tags on behind."
"But do you like to be with a child?" she said, surprised.
"Oh, she's got a lot of sense. Say, Nelly, I have an idea. While we are at Green Hill, let's camp out up there?"
"You don't mean stay all night?" she said, flinching. "Oh, wouldn't it be very uncomfortable? I—I hate the dark."
The sweet foolishness of it enchanted him (baby love feeds on pap!) "Pitch dark," he teased, "and lions and tigers roaring around, and snakes—"
"Of course I'll go, if you want me to," she said, simply, but with a real sinking of the heart.
"Edith adores it," he said. "Speaking of Edith, I must tell you something so funny. Last summer I was at Green Hill, and one night Mr. and Mrs. Houghton were away, and there was a storm. Gee, I never saw such a storm in my life! Edith has no more nerves than a tree, but even she was scared. Well, I was scared myself."
He had stretched himself out on the sofa, and she was kneeling beside him, her eyes worshiping him. "I would have been scared to death," she confessed.
"Well, I was!" he said. "The tornado—it was just about that!—burst on to us, and nearly blew the house off the hill—and such an infernal bellowing, and hellish green lightning, you never saw! Well, I was just thinking about Buster—her father calls her Buster; and wondering whether she was scared, when in she rushed, in her night-gown. She made a running jump for my bed, dived into it, grabbed me, and hugged me so I was 'most suffocated, and screamed into my ear, 'There's a storm!'—as if I hadn't noticed it. I said—I could hardly make myself heard in the racket—I yelled, 'Don't you think you'd better go back to your own room? I'll come and sit there with you.' And she yelled, 'I'm going to stay here.' So she stayed."
"I think she was a little old for that sort of thing," Eleanor said, coldly.
He gave a shout of laughter. "Eleanor! Do you mean to tell me you don't see how awfully funny it was? The little thing hugged me with all her might until the storm blew over. Then she said, calmly: 'It's cold. I'll stay here. You can go and get in my bed if you want to.'"
Eleanor gave a little shrug, then rose and went over to the window. "Oh yes, it was funny; but I think she must be a rather pert little thing. I don't want to go to Green Hill."
Maurice looked worried. "I hate to urge anything you don't like, Nelly; but I really do feel we ought to accept their invitation? And you'll like them! Of course they're not in your class. Nobody is! I mean they're old, and sort of commonplace. But we can go and live in the woods most of the time, and get away from them,—except little Skeezics. We'll take her along. You'll love having her; she's lots of fun. You see, I've got to go to Green Hill, because I must get in touch with Uncle Henry; I've got to find out about our income!" he explained, with a broad grin.
"I should think Edith would bore you," she said. Her voice was so sharply irritated that Maurice looked at her, open-mouthed; he was too bewildered to speak.
"Why, Eleanor," he faltered; "why are you—on your ear? Was it what I told you about Edith? You didn't think that she wasn't proper?"
"No! Of course not! It wasn't that." She came quickly and knelt beside him. "Of course it wasn't that! It was—" She could not say what it was; perhaps she did not quite know that her annoyance at Maurice's delight in Edith was the inarticulate pain of recognizing that he might have more in common with a child, eight years his junior, than he could have with a woman twenty years his senior. Her eyes were suddenly bright with frightened tears. In a whisper, that fear which, in these days of complete belief in her own happiness, she had forgotten even to deny, came back: "What really upset me was the letters. The Houghtons are angry because I am—" she flinched, and would not utter the final word which was the hidden reason of her annoyance at Edith; so, instead of uttering it, she said, "because we eloped."
As for Maurice, he rallied her, and pretended to scold her, and tasted her tears salt upon his lips. He felt very old and protecting.
"Nonsense!" he said. "Mrs. Houghton and Uncle Henry are old, and of course they can't understand love. But the romance of it will touch them!"
And again Love cast out Fear; Eleanor, her face hidden on his shoulder, told herself that it really didn't matter what the Houghtons thought of ... an elopement.
The cloud of their first difference had blown over almost before they felt its shadow, and the sky of love was as clear as the lucid beryl of the summer night. Yet even the passing shadow of the cloud kept both the woman and the boy repentant and a little frightened; he, because he thought he had offended her by some lack of delicacy; she, because she thought she had shocked him by what he might think was harshness to a child. Even a week afterward, as they journeyed up to Green Hill in a dusty accommodation train, there was an uneasy memory of that cloud—black with Maurice's dullness, and livid with the zigzag flash of Eleanor's irritation—and then the little shower of tears! ... What had brought the cloud? Would it ever return? ... As for those twenty dividing years, they never thought of them!
In the train they held each other's hands under the cover of a newspaper; and sometimes Maurice's foot touched hers, and then they looked at each other, and smiled—but each was wondering: his wonder was, "What made her offended at Edith?" And hers was, "How can he like to be with an eleven-year-old child!" Their talk, however, confessed no wonderings! It was the happy commonplace of companionship: Mrs. Newbolt and her departure for Europe; would Mrs. O'Brien be good to Bingo? what Maurice's business should be. Then Maurice yawned, and said he was glad that the commencement exercises at Fern Hill were over; and she said she was glad, too; she had danced, she said, until she had a pain in her side! After which he read his paper, and she looked out of the window at the flying landscape. Suddenly she said:
"That girl you danced with last night—you danced with her three times!" she said, with sweet reproach—"didn't know we were married!—she wasn't a Fern Hill girl. She told me she had been dancing with my 'nephew.'"
"Did she?... Eleanor, look at that elm tree, standing all alone in the field, like—like a wineglass full of summer!"
For a moment she didn't understand his readiness to change the subject—then she had a flash of instinct: "I believe she said the same thing to you!"
"Oh, she got off some fool thing." The annoyance in his voice was like a rapier thrust of certainty.
"I knew it! But I don't care. Why should I care?"
"You shouldn't. Besides, it was only funny. I was tremendously amused."
She turned and looked out of the window.
Maurice lifted the paper which had been such a convenient shelter for clasping hands, and seemed to read for a while. Then he said, abruptly, "I only thought it was funny for her to make such a mistake."
She was silent.
"Eleanor, don't be—that way!"
"What 'way'? You mean"—her voice trembled—"feel hurt to have you dance three times, with a girl who said an uncomplimentary thing about me?"
"But it wasn't uncomplimentary! It was just a silly mistake anyone might make—" He stopped abruptly, for there were tears in her eyes—and instantly his tenderness infolded her like sunshine. But even while he was making her talk of other things—the heat, or the landscape—he was a little preoccupied; he was trying to explain this tiny, ridiculous, lovely unreasonableness, by tracking it back to some failure of sensitiveness on his own part. It occurred to him that he could do this better if he were by himself—not sitting beside her, faintly conscious of her tenseness. So he said, abruptly, "Star, if you don't mind, I'll go and have a smoke."
"All right," she said; "give me the paper; I haven't looked at the news for days!" She was trembling a little. The mistake of a silly girl had had, at first, no significance, it was just, as it always is to the newly married woman, amusing to be supposed not to be married! But that Maurice, knowing of the mistake, had not mentioned its absurdity, woke an uneasy consciousness that he had thought it might annoy her! Why should it annoy her?—unless the reason of the mistake was as obvious to him as to the girl?—whom he had found attractive enough to dance with three times! It was as if a careless hand had pushed open a closed door, and given Maurice's wife a glimpse of a dark landscape, the very existence of which her love had so vehemently denied.
An hour later, however, when Maurice returned, she was serene again. Love had closed the door—bolted it! barred it! and the gray landscape of dividing years was forgotten. And as her face had cleared, so had his. He had explained her annoyance by calling himself a clod! "She hated not to be thought married—of course!" What a brute he was not to have recognized the subtle loveliness of a sensitiveness like that! He wanted to tell her so, but he could only push the newspaper toward her and slip his hand under it to feel for hers—which he clutched and gripped so hard that her rings cut into the flesh. She laughed, and opened her pocketbook and showed him the little circle of grass which he had slipped over her wedding ring after fifty-four minutes of married life. At which his whole face radiated. It was as if, through those gay blue eyes of his, he poured pure joy from his heart into hers.
"Be careful," he threatened: "one minute more, and I'll kiss you right here, before people!"
She snapped her purse shut in pretended terror, but after that they held hands under the newspaper, and were perfectly happy—until the moment came of meeting the Houghtons on the platform at the junction; then happiness gave way to embarrassment.
Henry Houghton, obliged to throw away a half-smoked cigar, and, saying under his breath that he wished he was asleep, was cross; but his wife was pleasantly commonplace. She kissed the bride, and the groom, too, and said that Edith was in a great state of excitement about them! Then she condoled with Eleanor about the heat, and told Maurice there were cinders on his hat. But not even her careful matter-of-courseness could make the moment anything but awkward. In the four-mile drive to Green Hill—during which Eleanor said she hoped old Lion wouldn't run away;—the young husband seemed to grow younger and younger; and his wife, in her effort to talk to Mr. Houghton, seemed to grow older and older....
"If I didn't happen to know she was a fool," Henry Houghton said to his Mary, washing his hands before going down to supper, "I should think she was quite a nice woman—she's so good looking."
"Henry! At your time of life, are you deciding a woman's 'niceness' by her looks?"
"But tell her she mustn't bore him," he said, ignoring the rebuke. "Tell her that when it comes to wives, every husband on earth is Mr. F.'s aunt—he 'hates a fool'!"
"Why not tell her yourself?" she said: then she sighed; "why did she do it?"
"She did it," he instructed her, "because the flattery of a boy's lovemaking went to her head. I have an idea that she was hungry for happiness—so it was champagne on an empty stomach. Think of the starvation dullness of living with that Newbolt female, who drops her g's all over the floor! Edith likes her," he added.
"Oh, Edith!" said Edith's mother, with a shrug; "well; if you can explain Eleanor, perhaps you can explain Maurice?"
"That's easy; anything in petticoats will answer as a peg for a man (we are the idealizing sex) to hang his heart on. Then, there's her music—and her pathos. For she is pathetic, Kit?"
But Mary Houghton shook her head: "It is Maurice who is pathetic—my poor Maurice!..."
When they went down to the east porch, with its great white columns, and its broad steps leading into Mrs. Houghton's gay and fragrant garden, they found Edith there before them—sitting on the top step, her arms around her knees, her worshiping eyes fixed on the Bride. Edith had nothing to say; it was enough to look at the "bridal couple," as the kitchen had named them. When her father and mother appeared, she did manage, in the momentary bustle of rising and offering chairs, to say to Maurice:
"Oh, isn't she lovely! Oh, Maurice, let's go out behind the barn after supper and talk! Maurice, did she bring her harp? I want to see her play on it! I saw her wedding ring," she ended, in an ecstatic whisper.
"She doesn't play on the harp; she plays on the piano. Did you twig her hair?" Maurice whispered back; "it's like black down!"
Edith was speechless with adoration; she wished, passionately, that Maurice would put his coat down for the Bride to step on, like Sir Walter Raleigh! "for she is a Queen!" Edith thought: then Maurice pulled one of her pigtails and she kicked him—and after that she was forgotten, for the grown people began to talk, and say it had been a hot day, and that the strawberries needed rain—but Eleanor hoped there wouldn't be a thunderstorm.
"They have to say things, I suppose," Edith reflected, patiently: "but after supper, Maurice and I will talk." So she bore with her father and mother, who certainly tried to be conversational. The Bride, Edith noticed, was rather silent, and Maurice, though grown up to the extent of being married, hadn't much to say—but once he winked at Edith and again tried to pull her hair,—so she knew that he, also, was patient. She was too absorbed to return the wink. She just stared at Eleanor. She only dared to speak to her once; then, breathlessly: "I—I'm going to go to your school, when I'm sixteen." It was as if she looked forward to a pilgrimage to a shrine! It was impossible not to see the worship in her face; Eleanor saw her smile made Edith almost choke with bliss. But, like herself, the Bride had nothing to say. Eleanor just sat in sweet, empty silence, and watched Maurice, twisting old Rover's ears, and answering Mrs. Houghton's maternal questions about his winter underclothing and moths; she caught that wink at Edith, and the occasional broad grin when Mrs. Houghton scolded him for some carelessness, and the ridiculous gesture of tearing his hair when she said he was a scamp to have forgotten this or that. Looking at the careless youth of him, she laughed to herself for sheer joy in the beauty of it!
But Edith's plan for barn conversation with Maurice fell through, because after supper, with an air of complete self-justification, he said to his hosts, "Now you must hear Eleanor sing!"
At which she protested, "Oh, Maurice, no!"
The Houghtons, however, were polite; so they all went into the studio, and, standing in the twilight, with Maurice playing her accompaniment, she sang, very simply, and with quite poignant beauty, the song of "Golden Numbers," with its serene refrain:
"O sweet, O sweet content!"
"Lovely, my dear," Mrs. Houghton said, and Maurice was radiant.
"Is Mr. F. your father?" Edith said, timidly; and while Eleanor was giving her maiden name, Edith's terrified father said, in a ferocious aside, "Mary! Kill that child!" Late that night he told his wife she really must do something about Edith: "Fortunately, Eleanor is as ignorant of Dickens as of 'most everything else. I bet she never read Little Dorrit. But, for God's sake, muzzle that daughter of yours! ... Mary, you see how he was caught?—the woman's voice."
"Don't call her 'the woman'!"
"Well, vampire. Kit, what do you make of her?"
"I wish I knew what to make of her! I feel sure she is really and truly good. But, oh, Henry, she's so mortal dull! She hasn't a spark of humor in her."
"'Course not. If she had, she wouldn't have married him. But he has humor! Better warn her that a short cut to matrimonial unhappiness is not to have the same taste in jokes! Mary, maybe, her music will hold him?"
"Maybe," said Mary Houghton, sighing.
"'Consider the stars,'" he quoted, sarcastically; but she took the sting out of his gibe by saying, very simply:
"Yes, I try to."
"He is good stuff," her husband said; "straight as a string! When he came into the studio to talk things over he was as sober as if he were fifty, and hadn't made an ass of himself. He took up the income question in a surprisingly businesslike way; then he said that of course he knew I didn't like it—his giving up college and flying off the handle, and getting married without saying anything to me. 'But,' he said, 'Eleanor's aunt is an old hell-cat;—she was going to drag Eleanor abroad, and I had to get her out of her clutches!' ... I think," Henry Houghton interrupted himself, "that's one explanation of Maurice: rescuing a forlorn damsel. Well, I was perfectly direct with him; I said, 'My dear fellow, Mrs. Newbolt is not a hell-cat; and the elopement was in bad taste. Elopements are always in bad taste. But the elopement is the least important part of it. The difference in age is the serious thing.' I got it out of him just what it is—almost twenty years. She might be his mother!—he admitted that he had had to lie about himself to get the license. I said, 'Your age is the dangerous thing, Maurice, not hers; and it's up to you to keep steady!' Of course he didn't believe me," said Mr. Houghton, sighing. "He's in love all right, poor infant! The next thing is for me to find a job for him.... She is good looking, Mary?" She nodded, and he said again, "A pre-Raphaelite woman; those full red lips, and that lovely black hair growing so low on her forehead. And a really good voice. And a charming figure. But I tell you one thing: she's got to stop twitting on facts. Did you hear her say, 'Maurice is so ridiculously young, he doesn't remember'—? I don't know what it was he didn't remember. Something unimportant. But she must not put ideas about his youth into his head. He'll know it soon enough! You tell her that."