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THE LESSER TEMPTING
Seven days of the week did Mr. Harrington Surtaine labor, without by any means doing all his work. For to the toil which goes to the making of many newspapers there is no end; only ever a fresh beginning. Had he brought to the enterprise a less eager appetite for the changeful adventure of it, the unremitting demand must soon have dulled his spirit. Abounding vitality he possessed, but even this flagged at times. One soft spring Sunday, while the various campaigns of the newspaper were still in mid-conflict, he decided to treat himself to a day off. So, after a luxurious morning in bed, he embarked in his runabout for an exploration around the adjacent country.
Having filled his lungs with two hours of swift air, he lunched, none too delicately, at a village fifty miles distant, and, on coming out of the hotel, was warned by a sky shaded from blue to the murkiest gray, into having the top of his car put up. The rain chased him for thirty miles and whelmed him in a wild swirl at the thirty-first. Driving through this with some caution, he saw ahead of him a woman's figure, as supple as a willow withe, as gallant as a ship, beating through the fury of the elements. Hal slowed down, debating whether to offer conveyance, when he caught a glint of ruddy waves beneath the drenched hat, and the next instant he was out and looking into the flushed face and dancing eyes of Milly Neal.
"What on earth are you doing here?" he cried.
"Can't you see?" she retorted merrily. "I'm a fish."
"You need to be. Get in. You're soaked to the skin," he continued, dismayed, as she began to shiver under the wrappings he drew around her. "Never mind. I'll have you home in a few minutes."
But the demon of mischance was abroad in the storm. Before they had covered half a mile the rear tire went. Milly was now shaking dismally, for all her brave attempts to conceal it. A few rods away a sign announced "Markby's Road-House." Concerned solely to get the girl into a warm and dry place, Hal turned in, bundled her out, ordered a private room with a fireplace, and induced the proprietor's wife by the persuasions of a ten-dollar bill to provide a change of clothing for the outer, and hot drinks for the inner, woman.
Half an hour later when he had affixed a new tire to the wheel, he and Milly sat, warmed and comforted before blazing logs, waiting for her clothes to dry out.
"I know I look a fright," she mourned. "That Mrs. Markby must buy her dresses by the pound."
She gazed at him comically from above a quaint and nondescript garment, to which she had given a certain daintiness with a cleverly placed ribbon or two and an adroit use of pins. Privately, Hal considered that she looked delightfully pretty, with her provocative eyes and the deep gleam of red in her hair like flame seen through smoke.
"Do you often go out wading, ten miles from home?" he asked.
"Not very. I was running away."
"I didn't see any one in pursuit."
"They knew too much." Her firm little chin set rather grimly. "Do you want to hear about it?"
"Yes. I'm curious," confessed Hal.
"I went to lunch with another girl and a couple of drummers, out at Callender's Pond Hotel. She said she knew the men and they were all right. They weren't. They got too fresh altogether. So I told Florence she could do as she pleased, but I was for home and the trolley. I guess I could have made it with a life-preserver," she laughed.
Hal was surprisedly conscious of a rasp of anger within him. "You ought not to put yourself into such a position," he declared.
She threw him a covert glance from the corner of her sparkling eyes. "Oh, I guess I can take care of myself," she decided calmly. "I always have. When fresh drummers begin to talk private dining-room and cold bottles, I spread my little wings and flit."
"To another private room," mocked Hal. "Aren't you afraid?"
"With you? You're different." There sounded in her voice the purring note of utter content which is the subtlest because the most unconscious flattery of womankind.
A silence fell between them. Hal stared into the fire.
"Are you warm enough?" he asked presently.
"Do you want something to eat? Or drink? What did you have to drink?" he added, glancing at the empty glass on the table.
"Certina?" he queried, uncertain at first whether she was joking. "How could you get Certina here?"
"Why not? They keep it at all these places. There's quite a bar-trade in it."
"Is that so?" said Hal, with a vague feeling of disturbance of ideas. "Which job do you like best: the Certina or the newspaper, Miss Neal?"
"My other boss calls me Milly," she suggested.
"Very well,--Milly, then."
"Oh, I'm for the office. It's more exciting, a lot."
"Your stuff," said Hal, in the language of the cult, "is catching on."
"You don't like it, though," she countered quickly.
"Yes, I do. Much better than I did, anyway. But the point is that it's a success. Editorially I have to like it."
"I'd rather you liked it personally."
"Some of it I do. The 'Lunch-Time Chats'--"
"And some of it you think is vulgar."
"One has to suit one's style to the matter," propounded Hal. "'Kitty the Cutie' isn't supposed to be a college professor."
"I hate to have you think me vulgar," she insisted.
"Oh, come!" he protested; "that isn't fair. I don't think you vulgar, Milly."
"I like to have you call me Milly," she said.
"It seems quite natural to," he answered lightly.
"I've thought sometimes I'd like to try my hand at a regular news story," she went on, in a changed tone. "I think I've got one, if I could only do it right; one of those facts-behind-the-news stories that you talked to us about. Do you remember meeting me with Max Veltman the other night?"
"Did you think it was queer?"
"A girl I used to know back in the country tried to kill herself. She wrote me a letter, but it didn't get to me till after midnight, so I called up Max and got him to go with me down to the Rookeries district where she lives. Poor little Maggie! She got caught in one of those sewing-girl traps."
"Some kind of machinery?"
"Machinery? You don't know much about what goes on in your town, do you?"
"Not as much as an editor ought to know--which is everything."
"I'll bring you Maggie's letter. That tells it better than I can. And I want to write it up, too. Let me write it up for the paper." She leaned forward and her eyes besought him. "I want to prove I can do something besides being a vulgar little 'Kitty the Cutie.'"
"Oh, my dear," he said, half paternally, but only half, "I'm sorry I hurt you with that word."
"You didn't mean to." Her smile forgave him. "Maggie's story means another fight for the paper. Can we stand another?"
He warmed to the possessive "we." "So you know about our warfare," he said.
"More than you think, perhaps. The books you gave me aren't the only things I study. I study the 'Clarion,' too."
"Why?" he asked, interested.
"Because it's yours." She looked at him straightly now. "Can you pull it through, Boss?"
"I think so. I hope so."
"We've lost a lot of ads. I can reckon that up, because I had some experience in the advertising department of the Certina shop, and I know rates." She pursed her lips with a dainty effect of careful computation. "Somewhere about four thousand a week out, isn't it?"
"Four thousand, three hundred and seventy in store business last week."
The talk settled down and confined itself to the financial and editorial policies of the paper, Milly asking a hundred eager and shrewd questions, now and again proffering some tentative counsel or caution. Impersonal though it seemed, through it Hal felt a growing tensity of intercourse; a sense of pregnant and perilous intimacy drawing them together.
"Since you're taking such an interest, I might get you to help Mr. Ellis run the paper when I go away," he suggested jocularly.
"You're not going away?" The query came in a sort of gasp.
"For long?" Her hand, as if in protest against the dreaded answer, went out to the arm of his chair. His own met and covered it reassuringly.
"Not very. It's the new press."
"We're going to have a new press?"
"Hadn't you heard? You seem to know so much about the office. We're going to build up the basement and set the press just inside the front wall and then cut a big window through so that the world and his wife can see the 'Clarion' in the very act of making them better."
Both fell silent. Their hands still clung. Their eyes were fixed upon the fire. Suddenly a log, half-consumed, crashed down, sending abroad a shower of sparks. The girl darted swiftly up to stamp out a tiny flame at her feet. Standing, she half turned toward Hal.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"To New York."
"Take me with you."
So quietly had the crisis come that he scarcely realized it. For a measured space of heart-beats he gazed into the fireplace. As he stared, she slipped to the arm of his chair. He felt the alluring warmth of her body against his shoulder. Then he would have turned to search her eyes, but, divining him, she denied, pressing her cheek close against his own.
"No; no! Don't look at me," she breathed.
"You don't know what you mean," he whispered.
"I do! I'm not a child. Take me with you."
"It means ruin for you."
"Ruin! That's a word! Words don't frighten me."
"They do me. They're the most terrible things in the world."
She laughed at that. "Is it the word you're afraid of, or is it me?" she challenged. "I'm not asking you anything. I don't want you to marry me. Oh!" she cried with a sinking break of the voice, "do you think I'm bad?"
Freeing himself, he caught her face between his hands.
"Are you--have you been 'bad,' as you call it?"
"I don't blame you for asking--after what I've said. But I haven't."
"Now, I care. I never cared before. It was that, I suppose, kept me straight. Don't you care for me--a little, Hal?"
He rose and strode to the window. When he turned from his long look out into the burgeoning spring she was standing silent, expectant. Like stone she stood as he came back, but her arms went up to receive him. Her lips melted into his, and the fire of her face flashed through every vein.
"And afterward?" he said hoarsely.
There was triumph in her answering laughter, passion-shaken though it was.
"Then you'll take me with you."
"But afterward?" he repeated.
Lingeringly she released herself. "Let that take care of itself. I don't care for afterward. We're free, you and I. What's to hinder us from doing as we please? Who's going to be any the worse for it? Oh, I told you I was lawless. It's the Hardscrabbler blood in me, I guess."
Deep in Hal's memory a response to that name stirred.
"Somewhere," he said, "I have run across a Hardscrabbler before."
"Me. But you've forgotten."
"Have I? Let me see. It was in the old days when Dad and I were traveling. You were the child with the wonderful red hair, the night I was hurt. Were you?"
"And next day I tried to bite you because you wanted to play with a prettier little girl in beautiful clothes."
Esmé! The electric spark of thought leaped the long space of years from the child, Esmé, to the girl, in the vain love of whom he had eaten his heart hollow. For the moment, passion for the vivid woman-creature before him had dulled that profounder feeling almost to obliteration. Perhaps--so the thought came to him--he might find forgetfulness, anodyne in Milly Neal's arms. But what of Milly, taken on such poor terms?
The bitter love within him gave answer. Not loyalty to Esmé Elliot whom he knew unworthy, but to Milly herself, bound him to honor and restraint; so strangely does the human soul make its dim and perilous way through the maze of motives. Even though the girl, now questing his face with puzzled, frightened eyes, asked nothing but to belong to him; demanded no bond of fealty or troth, held him free as she held herself free, content with the immediate happiness of a relation that, must end in sorrow for one or the other, yet he could not take what she so prodigally, so gallantly proffered, with the image of another woman smiling through his every thought. That, indeed, were to be unworthy, not of Esmé, not of himself, but of Milly.
He made a step toward her, and her glad hands went out to him again. Very gently he took them; very gently he bent and kissed her cheek.
"That's for good-bye," he said. The voice in which he spoke seemed alien to his ears, so calm it was, so at variance with his inner turmoil.
"You won't take me with you?"
"I know." He was not concerned now with verbal differentiations. Truly, he had promised, wordlessly though it had been. "But I can't."
"You don't care?" she said piteously.
"I care very much. If I cared less--"
"There's some other woman."
Flame leaped in her eyes. "I hope she poisons your life."
"I hope I haven't poisoned yours," he returned, lamely enough.
"Oh, I'll manage to live on," she gibed. "I guess there are other men in the world besides you."
"Don't make it too hard, Milly."
"You're pitying me! Don't you dare pity me!" A sob rose, and burst from her. Then abruptly she seized command over herself. "What does it all matter?" she said. "Go away now and let me change my clothes."
"Are they dry?"
"I don't care whether they're dry or not. I don't care what becomes of me now." All the sullen revolt of generations of lawlessness was vocal in her words. "You wait and see!"
Somehow Hal got out of the room, his mind awhirl, to await her downstairs. In a few moments she came, and with eyes somberly averted got into the runabout without a word. As they swung into the road, they met McGuire Ellis and Wayne, who bowed with a look of irrepressible surprise. During the ride homeward Hal made several essays at conversation. But the girl sat frozen in a white silence. Only when they pulled up at her door did she speak.
"I'm going to try to forget this," she said in a dry, hard voice. "You do the same. I won't quit my job unless you want me to."
"Don't," said Hal.
"But you won't be bothered with seeing me any more. I'll send you Maggie Breen's letter and the story. I guess I understand a little better now how she felt when she took the poison."
With that rankling in his brain, Hal Surtaine sat and pondered in his private study at home. His musings arraigned before him for judgment and contrast the two women who had so stormily wrought upon his new life. Esmé Elliot had played with his love, had exploited it, made of it a tinsel ornament for vanity, sought, through it, to corrupt him from the hard-won honor of his calling. She had given him her lips for a lure; she had played, soul and body, the petty cheat with a high and ennobling passion. Yet, because she played within the rules by the world's measure, there was no stain upon her honor. By that same measure, what of Milly Neal? In her was no trickery of sex; only the ungrudging, wide-armed offer of all her womanhood, reckless of aught else but love. Debating within himself the phrase, "an honest woman," Hal laughed aloud. His laughter lacked much of being mirthful, and something of being just. For he had reckoned two daughters of Eve by the same standard, which is perhaps the oldest and most disastrous error hereditary to all the sons of Adam.
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