When McCready Turned Missionary
WHEN McCREADY TURNED MISSIONARY
By Anne O'Hagan
McCREADY was looking at Miss Crystal with the glazed eye of disapproval. One or two of the staff, taking note of his lowering brow and his hanging jaw, and following his gaze, concluded that he was dissatisfied with her work, and confided to one another that they, also, had marked its lack of "go."
Miss Crystal sat at her desk, oblivious of the brief attention she was attracting, her gray eyes heavy, her full, scarlet lips fallen into a curve of purposeless unhappiness. Even her red hair, usually vivid enough to redeem her from a look of listlessness, seemed unaccountably lacking in brilliancy that day.
As a question of fact, McCready's disapproval was personal, and not professional, that morning. He had never objected to the commonplace level of Miss Crystal's "stories." He had said, once or twice, that there was enough cheap flippancy, enough mock pathos and enough sham philosophy in the paper, and that her clear, cool English was a joy after the perfervid rhetoric of the "stars." Besides that, he had intimated that it was a priceless blessing to The Cry to have in its employ a woman who bore herself like a lady, and who could thus gain admission to places where "Alice Ben Bolt" would be persona non grata.
To-day, he was scowling over the possibility that he had been mistaken in Miss Crystal, after all. He was seeing her as he had seen her the night before, seated at a table in Curate's. Curate's was the newest and most ornate of all the after-theatre resorts. Lights winked from a thousand yellow-brown eyes along the bronze-leather walls, music trickled sentimentally from an unexpected gallery railed in green and bronze. Ladies, the conscientious brilliancy of whose complexions and jewels ought to have atoned for the somewhat tarnished luster of their minds, ate and drank expensively with escorts of callow ecstasy or of satiated self-indulgence, while other women studied them with frank insolence, or ignored them blandly.
It was not a social lapse to be seen at Curate's. McCready's own gray-haired wife and his young dryad of a daughter had sat under his bristling protection, and had recognized only gaiety and glitter in the scene. But Miss Crystal had had no such chaperonage. Mr. Crawford Duncan could not be esteemed by even the most casual and innocent-eyed of observers, a well-chosen companion for a young woman. To McCready, who knew, as all the town did, his standing as a roué of parts, a libertine of attractions even more potent than his reputation, the sight had been painful. The fact that in some indefinable way the girl—a shining vision against the dull wall, with her red hair, her yellow bodice, and the glass of yellow wine with which she played—had fitted into her surroundings, had not lessened McCready's distaste for them. He had not the soul of an artist, McCready, and certain harmonies did not appeal to him.
"Damn it!" he said to himself, "she must know his reputation. She must know his wife." A vision of the drab little bearer of Mr. Duncan's name with the thin, uncertain smile that the result—or the cause—of Mr. Duncan's wanderings, flashed before him. He remembered her in her box at the opera, in her victoria on the Avenue, always pitifully dwarfed by the splendor of her appurtenances. McCready, city editor of The Cry was not in society, and he knew the little woman only in her public and official appearances. But they were enough. Miss Crystal, newspaper woman, no mere child, must know approximately all that he knew. If she chose to dine alone with the man, it was none of McCready's business. He was no reformer, to be looking out for the morals of his staff. But he had not thought her that sort, and—
He rang the bell sharply. "Tell Miss Crystal to come here," he growled, sinking his chin in his collar, and scowling prodigiously. The boy obeyed with cheerful alacrity. Miss Crystal blushed a little as she came forward. She had seen her grim chief the night before, and she was not used to being unconventional.
"Mornin', " said McCready. "Nothing much to-day. Wedding out in Glen Ridge. A Miss Greyer—this afternoon, at four."
"Do they want it reported?" asked Miss Crystal, a premonition of rebuffs chilling her. She hated to "do society" in any of its guises.
"Sure to. They always do, no matter what they pretend," said McCready, with the conviction of a man who does not have to put his faith to the test. Miss Crystal did not attempt to controvert the favorite axiom of her editor, unless her colorless smile could be construed as argument.
"Anyway," pursued McCready, "they are friends of the old man, and you'll be all right. Dick, look up trains to Glen Ridge for Miss Crystal."
When, finally, the door of the city room closed upon her departing figure, McCready ruminated: "See how that'll strike her. Wedding—'Voice that breathed'—tum, tum, te-tum!—'Cherish so long as ye both shall—' Maybe, she'll come to her senses. She can't want to do wrong, and there's no half-way with Duncan—not for a woman in her position. With one of his own set perhaps—well, maybe, if she were as heartless as he."
Later, lunching with Williamson, the advertising man, he had anxiously inquired—veiling both question and anxiety under gruff declaration—if women were not always sentimentalist—turned into the paths of peace or of disquietude by the mere influence of the moment, played upon by the [moods], likely to become as little children [as they] heard an old tune. And when Williamson indifferently agreed McCready banished the furrow from his face and the fear from his heart, telling himself again that "the wedding service would fetch her."
Commonly, Miss Crystal loathed her work. She deeply disliked attending "parties" to which she had not been invited, and putting questions to persons who did not wish to answer them. She had never outgrown a tradition that such things were ill-bred, and she found it in her heart to forgive many counter-examples of ill-breeding because of her perception of their justification. Her talents, however, were not enough to advance her to a more dignified place in her profession, and her attainments in other directions prevented a change of calling.
To-day, she welcomed the quiet of the brief journey. She would devote it, not to the planning of questions in regard to Miss Greyer's trousseau or wedding-presents or bridesmaids' names—not even to reading the two-line clipping which Mr. McCready had given her as a guide, but entirely to her own situation.
Should she, or should she not? Life was dull, work was monotonous, she was unutterably lonely now that there was no longer a home, either the home of her old affections or the home of the dreams she had once dreamed, to give her a sense of companionship and love. Her eyes grew hard as she surveyed the flying landscape, and the red line of her lips spelt bitterness.
It is not good to sneer at one's past when one plans one's future. She sneered at the thought of the home she had dreamed of during her engagement, six years before, to Owen Bromley—a little place, all climbing roses in Summer and hearth-fires in Winter, and walks and peaceful twilight talks together—and love!
Then, when her father had died, how tranquilly Owen had yielded to her suggestion that he should not be hampered in the very beginning of his career as an engineer by an engagement with a girl who had a mother to support! And now she had not heard of him for four years—not even when, after three years, her mother had died. Ah, well! perhaps he had not heard. And even if he had, and had come, there would have been no glow in the welcome to him. The youth was gone from her, then, she told herself, and she did not care.
She could not tell when the craving for excitement first took hold of her—some time, she supposed, when the healthy pleasures of young womanhood had been too long withheld, when the routine of her days had dulled her sensitiveness a little. Then she had obtained her stimulant; a flush crept over her face, the counterpart of the one McCready had seen the night before. She had met Crawford Duncan; it was not for nothing that silly women called him fascinating. She had drifted, and now she could drift no more, she knew, clothe his demands in what words of friendship or respect he would.
Friendship! She laughed. Was it much friendship that had cut lines about his mouth, burned hollows about his eyes? All that he asked, he said, was some few of the intimacies of mere friendship—the chance to see her, occasionally, alone, not in a glittering, noisy restaurant, with a table between them and hunger dividing their interest in each other; only an opportunity to talk to her, sometimes, alone, to persuade her that he was not so black a villain as he was commonly painted. She was a working-woman, he told her, therefore above the stupid, small conventionalities. What did it matter that she had no chaperon, or that she did not know his wife?
"I wonder," she said to herself, "how many women are driven to folly and to sin by mere boredom, by the desire to keep hold of the one excitement of their lives? And I used to think that only unhappy love could force one out of the way of peace and dignity! Unhappy love, indeed!"
"Glen Ridge!" shouted the conductor; and she hurried out of the train.
She walked toward the Greyer house. She was blind for a while to the beauty of the day, and her mind kept repeating his words of last night. "We cannot go on like this any longer. You must give me something, show some trust in me, in my deep regard for you. To-morrow must end it, one way or the other. Unless you will grant me the little that I ask—a little share in your life—that is all—then I shall give you up entirely."
"It would be very stupid if he went away, really," she said to herself, "And, perhaps, after all, he means what he says."
Then, her eyes caught sight of a sloping lawn with cherry-trees white upon it, and her heart gave a leap. How long had it been since she had seen the Spring come to the countryside!
She reached the Greyers' house with her own problems half -forgotten. The delicious warmth of the air, the stirrings in the billowy-blossomed trees, the look of the April sky—all these were of another world from the fevered one in which she had been dwelling. The two could not co-exist. She deferred her decisions.
The house was of gray stone, broad and stately. Imposing drives cut its long stretch of lawn; pale wistaria clung to its rough sides; back of it, an orchard was beautiful. It was so fair, so peaceful a place that Miss Crystal forgot, in her content with it, to be envious of those to whom it belonged. A kindly glow pervaded her for the bride who was to go forth from a shelter so perfect as this to the dearer one that love should make for her.
"No, no; you can't find out nothin' now," whispered the man at the door, who had intercepted her ring. "The party's just comin' down to the library, now, miss. The ceremony is just goin' to begin. Afterward, Mr. Cartwright—he's the best man, miss—will see the reporters."
She nodded, her eyes wandering to the trees before the house.
"If you'll step inside, miss," went on the butler, "I think I could stand you on the stairs, where you could have a lovely view of the ceremony."
Again Miss Crystal smiled and nodded. A white vision leaning upon an elderly arm was just disappearing from the hall into the embowered room at its end, as the butler motioned her to a place on the stairs. She looked in, upon the great room, the sombreness of its books contending with the glory of blossoms, the lights from its high, colored windows giving it a church-like air. She saw the centre picture, the white robes of the clergyman, the white dress of the bride, the half-encircling wall of pink and black where the rose-hued bridesmaids and the ushers stood, behind them the blurred gaiety of the wedding-party. Then, she looked at the figure beside the slender bride. The vague smile died from her lips, the pleased light from her eyes. That immaculate figure, that clear-cut face, were those of her old lover. It was Owen Bromley's wedding that she had blindly come out to report.
The brief service seemed to her interminable. In its length, she was able to see again all her own early hopes and wistful fancies—dead long since, dead with what she had called her love, but somehow alive enough to be outraged now by this scene with its miserable contrasts.
"Let me out!" she cried, fiercely, to the astonished butler, as the solemn words ceased, and a sudden flurry of laughter and talk and crowding about the bridal pair began, while from the music-room across the hall the organ notes of the wedding-march pealed jubilantly.
"Why, I thought—" he began.
"Never mind, never mind that! Let me out!" And he opened the door, and stared at her in uncomprehending disapproval as she fled down the path.
Once beyond the high arbor-vitæ hedge that screened the Greyer place from vulgar observation, she hurried along, she knew not in what direction. It was monstrous that she, working hard, working alone, so wretched and companionless that she could contemplate temptation without shrinking—it was monstrous that she should be sent to witness the prosperous—oh, the very highly prosperous!—wedding of the man whom she had once expected to marry herself! That she should have to report the wedding of Owen Bromley! How had it happened? She tore at her purse, jerked the clipping from it. Idiot that she had been not to have looked before! The statement was perfectly clear:
On Tuesday, April 26, Miss Henrietta Greyer, the youngest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Greyer, will be married to Mr. Owen Bromley, son of the late Owen Bromley, of Baltimore. The wedding will take place at four o'clock in the afternoon, at the Greyer place in Glen Ridge.
If only she had read that in time, and had spared herself this bitter humiliation!
At any rate, she knew one thing now, she told herself, as she hurried along. She would never sacrifice one moment's enjoyment, one moment's promise of enjoyment, for any hope of good or any memory of good. Of course, she had no love now for the correct, self-seeking man back there—it had been long since she had had it; but, oh, how tenderly she had thought she loved him in the foolish days when she offered him the chance to make a swifter, surer, steadier way to success without her! And he was marrying—correctly, advantageously—and she supposed that she might report his wife's receptions when they were in town next Winter!
On and on she fled, careless as to whither. April was powerless now to win a look from her. Henceforth, she told herself, planning a new, bitter rule of life, henceforth, she would take what the gods provided. She had an insane sense of revenging herself upon Owen Bromley when she made this resolve. She would flirt, she would extract the utmost of mirth from each moment as it came. Hitherto, she had always rather held aloof from the noisy gaiety, the hail-fellow-well-met intimacies of the office. But, for the future, these—anything, everything! To-day it was Crawford Duncan who offered her excitement, comradeship of a sort—love, he would call it, as soon as she gave him the chance to speak! Well, she would take it all! And when that was over, she would not be so old or so unlovely that others should not minister to her craving for admiration and attention. After all, it might not soon be over. Surely, Crawford Duncan could love as truly and as long as that man back there whom she had heard vowing to endow with all his worldly goods the millionaire's daughter.
Again she heard the triumphant swelling of the organ, and her mind supplied familiar words:
"Valiant and free—faithful confessed—"
The mockery, the mockery of that! Her rage gave place to self-pity as she remembered.
At the top of a high hill, she recollected that she had no idea of her whereabouts. A broad valley, foaming with blossoming orchards, tender with an infinitude of Spring greens, lay below her, a faint mist veiling the perfect glory of the afternoon. She saw towns on the slopes of the distant hillsides flash into being; she saw houses, here and there, in the big bowl below her; she saw a narrow river gleam among the verdure. But all the region was totally unfamiliar to her town eyes. She hesitated. The hill was bordered on one side by a heavy growth of trees, and she thought that she heard sounds among them. She wished to inquire her whereabouts and her road back to the city; so, she waited, listening, and suddenly very weak-from hurry, emotion and the languor of the season.
A laugh rippled upon the air; then came a shrill cry of delight—a child's cry; then, a confused, bubbling sound of young voices. They came from out the wood, part way down the hill. She ventured on, and when she came opposite the place where she had fixed them in her mind she called, "Children!"
There was no answer, and the weariness that had attacked her so suddenly after the intensity of her excitement and resolutions grew greater at the sight of the long descent to the plain, and of the longer journey to the nearest house. She paused a moment, then left the road, parting the bushes near it carefully, and made her way into the wood recess.
"Children!" she called again, as the young trees near the edge of the grove closed behind her. Still there was silence, except for the tremulous voices of the Spring afternoon. But she pressed on, farther into the cool, green light. The sound of a trickling stream became her guide.
By-and-bye she came upon it—a thread, winding in and out among rocks and the roots of trees it had bared from their covering of earth. And, following it, she found the children, three of them, lying flat on their stomachs, their faces peering into the brook where it had widened and calmed for a moment, into a pool.
"Oh, there you are!" cried Miss Crystal, happily. To have found guides now seemed to her a real good fortune, little as she would have allowed the possibility of that an hour before.
"Oh, please hush!" entreated the fat little girl of the trio, barely looking up, and waving a chubby hand of rebuke in the direction of Miss Crystal. "There, he's gone! She's frightened him!" She rolled around to a sitting posture with a good deal of plump difficulty, as her companions righted themselves and stared at Miss Crystal.
"Oh, I'm sorry I intruded!" said that young woman, meeting three pairs of reproachful eyes. "But I'm lost, and I heard your voices; you were talking, yourselves, a while ago."
"Yes," said the larger boy, in a tone of righteous judgment, "We were, but that was before we saw the fish. We thought he might be a trout! He was under the shelf of that rock there." He pointed to a boulder that projected a foot or two in the water.
"Indeed, I'm sorry," apologized the interrupter. "But since I have spoiled your afternoon's sport, won't you tell me where I am and how to get away?"
The younger boy looked at her gravely. The severe aspect of his round face was not lightened, as was the other boy's, by any redeeming freckles near his blue eyes. He was all judgment, untempered by levity of any sort.
"It depends," he announced, "on which way you want to go."
"She wants to go to New York," declared the little girl, promptly, giving one indifferent glance at Miss Crystal's brown frock, and proceeding to dig diligently in the soft earth with her heel.
"Do you?" asked the younger boy. Miss Crystal nodded; she also smiled. And when Miss Crystal smiled like that—frankly, whole-heartedly, youthfully—she was a very pretty woman. The older boy noted this, though he could not have defined it. He brushed aside all question of destination.
"Say," he said, while the Solomon of the party still revolved in his mind the question of routes, "I could show you some white violets if you had time."
Miss Crystal was very tired. Her knees were weak. She suddenly bethought herself that it is not good to go luncheonless on an enervating day in Spring, and that it is never invigorating to give one's self up to rages and disappointments. She sat down on a stump, rather suddenly.
"I am afraid I haven't time," she answered, a trifle faintly. "Some other day, perhaps."
"Huh!" sniffed the little girt, in swift disdain of this banality. "How long do you think white violets stay?"
"That's true, they are brief-lived, aren't they? But how shall I get to New York?"
"Do you want to go on a train or a trolley?" persisted the accurate youth.
"Whichever will take me the quicker." Miss Crystal looked at her watch; it was after five o'clock.
"That's a pretty watch," declared the girl, who had drawn near the stump.
"I'm glad you like it," replied Miss Crystal, courteously.
"Did your mother give it to you?"
"If you want to go to New York quickly, you had better go on the train. Don't you know where you are at?"
Miss Crystal shook her head. She felt more and more wearied.
"Well, you're at Preston's—that is, you're near Preston's, and if you get there in time, they'll flag a train for you."
"What time?" asked Miss Crystal, struggling to her feet.
"Oh, any time when there's a train coming along."
The bigger boy had disappeared at a bend in the brook. He came back now, flushed and bare-headed, carrying his hat in his hand. With very earthy fingers he presented it to her.
"There are the violets," he said, briefly.
Miss Crystal looked at him and at his gift. Cool and starry-white in the torn lining of his cap the flowers lay, their silken stems still flecked with damp mold. He flushed, uncomfortably, beneath the sudden, pitiful gratitude of her glance.
"I got 'em for you!" he said. "Ain't you goin' to take 'em?"
"You should say, 'aren't you going to take them,' " corrected the little girl.
"I am," said Miss Crystal, tears in her eyes. "I am, and I'm going to keep them."
"Oh, they don't last long," said the boy.
"If you're coming to Preston's," announced the younger boy, patiently, "you'd better come. We've got to go home in time to wash our hands before tea."
"Oh, I am thoughtless," cried the woman, springing to her feet. "And were you going to take me to the station?"
"Of course," said the trio, briefly and simultaneously.
The green light in the woods faded to a green twilight. The soft breeze fluttered into stillness; the brook's ripple, the evening calling of birds, sounded together. From some pool in the woods the frogs set up their loud Spring cry. The solemn boy possessed himself of one of Miss Crystal's hands, the girl of the other. The giver of the violets shuffled along at one side, nonchalantly switching at the bushes. He was still blushing over the access of sentiment which had prompted his offering, but he whistled and switched the more strenuously to hide his embarrassment.
"Some time I am coming to see you," declared Miss Crystal, earnestly, as the station-agent shambled out to flag the train. She was a woman of impulses. The half-hour in the dim grove, with the sweetness of the earth in her nostrils and the sight of the children in her eyes, seemed to her now miraculous, a sacred wonder wrought for her salvation. "I am coming to see you surely. I am glad you told me your names, Amy and Lawrence and Joe. You have been very kind to me. I shall not forget."
"Oh, it wasn't anything," declared the big boy. "It's on our way home, anyway."
Then, they watched her swing aboard the train, and stood, the boys with their caps decorously in hand, to catch her farewell smile and the wave of her hand.
The door of the telephone booth was open. McCready noticed with a grim amusement that Miss Crystal went at once to it, and did not go to her desk to begin work when she came in. He heard her call. Indeed, it must be recorded that McCready did not conscientiously try to avoid hearing the call.
"Is that Mr. Duncan? Yes? This is Miss Crystal, Mr. Duncan. I shall not be at home this evening. You remember I promised to let you know. No, no. Oh, no, thank you! No. It is quite impossible. To-morrow? I think it a very excellent plan, and I hope that you will have a very pleasant voyage. Good-bye."
Even through a telephone receiver, McCready thought, a man must perceive and appreciate the finality of Miss Crystal's tones.
"I'm sorry, Mr. McCready," began Miss Crystal, appearing at the desk. "I forgot to get the names of the ushers and the list of the guests. I—I felt suddenly ill during the ceremony, and came away."
"Let it go," mumbled McCready. "Big strike ordered at the cotton works in Fall River; no room for weddings, anyway, to-morrow. And now. Miss Crystal, Mrs. McCready wants you to come up to dinner with us to-night—oh, yes, perfectly informally. No one else there but Walton. You know Walton, don't you? No? One of the editorial writers. Do come. Mrs. McCready begged you to waive formality. She ought to have called, and all that, but you're a busy woman—and—that's right. I'll be ready in fifteen minutes."
And, as McCready went off himself to telephone—taking the precaution to close the door of the booth, however—he said to himself, in simple-minded triumph: "I knew the wedding service would fetch her!"