HE town of Willow Creek lies at the junction of a rivulet of that name with the Big Muddy. But the people of that community being born scoffers, have changed the name of the Big Muddy in common parlance to "Mud Crick," and, transformed by the alchemy of popular depreciation, the name of the town itself has shriveled into "Willer Crick." It might have been something of a town, as towns go in the West, but instead of pulling with his neighbors for the success of the town, each of its founders spent his time making fun of the pretensions of others. When there was talk on the part of "old man" Mead, the primeval postmaster, of securing the government land office for Willow Creek, the Indian trader, and the saloon keeper, and the blacksmith, made great sport of the old man's ambition. A few years later, when civilization had crowded in with a hotel, a lumber yard, a new saloon, and a barber shop, someone spoke of starting a newspaper; but the laugh that went up from Willow Creek was the only unanimity that greeted Editor M. F. McCray when his back was turned. But the newspaper came, and so did the people, and they kept coming, until, when the "boom" of the later eighties struck Kansas, it found Willow Creek with scoffing inhabitants. The effect of the "boom" on the town was strange indeed. It was a contagious mental disease, and when it attacked the two thousand sufferers from chronic melancholia, its effect was like the confusion of tongues. Every man had his own scheme for the salvation of Willow Creek, and every other man jeered at him. One man wanted to start a woolen mill on "Mud Crick," and after the walls were up and the machinery in, Willow Creek split its sides with laughter, when the enterprising man found there was no wool in Lincoln county. An enthusiastic man, who bored and struck salt, was the town joke, when he discovered that the railroad rates were so high, that he could not evaporate and ship the salt at a profit. An iron foundry, a deserted college, a clock factory, and a flour mill today stand as monuments to the energy of the "boom," and the potent influence of the organized scoffers.
But, in one way or another, the "boom" seemed to bring wealth to Willow Creek. And with wealth, came some attempts at the organization of polite society. There were innumerable young real estate agents, young doctors, young lawyers, and clerks, all from the East, in the village; and these, with the daughters of the early settlers and such friends as they chanced to make in the high school, constituted the aristocracy of the town. It was a vulnerable aristocracy and the scoffers made sad havoc with it. Fathers who had carried their sweethearts -- now their wives -- across the Big Muddy on their backs to and from the dances at Jack Armstrong's ranch, were too common and too voluble in Willow Creek to permit the daughters and sons of the town to assume very much dignity. If a family put on many airs, the members of a dozen families in town would tell newcomers how the would-be fashionables had received "aid" from the committee in the grasshopper year.
It was said of Flora McCray, who went to boarding school and came back timid, retiring, and distinctly unsocial, that, "She needn't hold herself so high. If her father would only pay back the money he stole in the school land fraud she would be as common as anybody." But the girl paid no heed to these rumors, if she heard them. She quietly filled her small sphere, bounded on one side by her meek-voiced mother and her busy father, on another side by her church and her "church social," on a third side by a very brief glimpse of a very big world and her memory of it, and on the fourth side by occasional day dreams and night thoughts, pretty much the same as those which come to any young girl of good health, good spirits, and twenty-one years who has never had a sweetheart.
After the "boom" had passed, Willow Creek saw the dress suits that had many and many a time danced to the sound of revelry by night in the opera house flit away. Flora McCray probably knew nothing of the appearance, nor of the departure of these formal trappings. They seldom appeared at the church socials, and when they were gone from the gatherings of politer society, the young woman did not miss them in her humble walk. She had never attended a dance; not that she was too strong in her piety to have gone, but because no one had ever thought of asking her. Dancing, during the days of the "boom" was the chief, if not the only social diversion, in what was known as the best society of the place. So it was said that the McCray girl "never went out."
As the reaction caused by the decadence of real estate prices set in, Willow Creek became poorer. As the young men, who paid for the orchestras, and halls, and flowers, gradually left town, the young women, who formerly frequented receptions, parties, and balls, were seen more and more often at the "church socials." After a two-years ineffectual struggle, Willow Creek gave it up; the town could no longer support two branches of society, and the "church crowd" and the "dance crowd" merged into one. The union was a very sensible one, yet every one laughed at it and said that the church people were getting giddy, or that "the aristocracy had made a fine 'come down' from its high horse." Of a bevy of girls who gave broom-brigade drills and milk-maid conventions, and who conducted "tea socials," for the benefit of the library or the temperance society, Flora McCray made one. But it was merely a numerical one. As a leader, a planner, and a schemer, she was less than an integer.
She had no intimates, and unless a crowd was present, or numbers were needed, no one thought of her. She went everywhere with her parents. Young men were scarce, and other girls, more designing than she, never thought of wasting masculine material on her.
When it was announced that the entire social body of Willow Creek was going out to Robinson's for a "taffy pull," one Saturday night, the rest of Willow Creek laughed. The town people sneered at the young women who had planned the party, and intimated that the night ride out to Robinson's and back was an heroic measure; and they laughed at old man Robinson and his family for tolerating people who would snub them if they came to town, and lastly they laughed at the young men who would have to pay the livery bills.
Saturday morning, John Howard, Mr. McCray's partner in the stock business, came up from the farm on Dry Creek, and after going over some details of business, McCray asked his partner to Sunday dinner, as was his custom, when the young man was in town, and the invitation was accepted. During the "boom" Howard had made money. He had mingled with what is known as the "swell set" of Willow Creek, and though not a favorite at the flood of the " boom," the very fact that he had the social instinct, made him a necessity in society at its ebb.
Soon after leaving his partner's office, he had learned of the plans for the "taffy pull" that evening. He was urged to go, and finding that all the "rigs" were full, and that all the girls of his "set" were provided with escorts, in a moment of despairing inspiration the young man sent a note to his partner's daughter, asking for "the pleasure of her company." His invitation was accepted, and late that afternoon, Flora McCray stepped into a buggy with the first beau she had ever had, and headed a long procession for Robinson's.
Some one had stopped the clock that night, and the young women, putting on their wraps, guessed that it was nearly midnight, when the "taffy pull" at Robinson's broke up. As Flora McCray sat alone in the Robinson parlor waiting to hear the grinding of wheels across the gravelled path that would herald her escort's buggy, she went over the evening's impressions in her mind. She decided that it had been a very pleasant evening. She had never before found herself surrounded by the masterful attentions of a young man. She was pleased with his business-like devotion to her coffee cup, and was amused, yet a little startled, when he piled a monument of cake upon her plate and called on every one to pass things down his way as Miss McCray was very hungry. It was a new sensation to find herself a part of the merriment. Heretofore, she had been only a spectator at such scenes. And now that it was all over, she felt herself still a spectator, and in the mood of a spectator, she smiled deprecatingly as she thought of the courteous attentions of her father's friend. And thus, with a mind isolated from the vain world by such reflections, she started with Howard on their homeward ride.
It was a blustering, cloudy night. The freakish wind scurried across fields, pirouetted around corners, scampered through hedges, and impishly pulled the dry, scraggly grass of the roadside, till the bald, old earth winced and shivered with pain. Howard was the last to leave, and as he got into the buggy, after closing the last gate, the rollicking wind tugged viciously at a corner of the laprobe, like a playful puppy. The girl shivered as Howard leaned over to tuck the robe more snugly around her. She slipped gently from her attitude of passive placidity to one of unconscious, yet active interest, in what appeared to be the strange, new face her companion seemed to wear in the darkness. At first they chatted on about the commonplaces of Willow Creek. Flora McCray tried again and again to associate her recollection of the familiar face of her father's partner with the smooth-shaven face so near her in the night. Her repeated efforts were tantalizing. Little by little, did the wizard of the night weave her fancies, and then herself into the woof of his uncanny spell. Not only was she with a stranger, but she was herself a stranger to herself. Nor was the spirit of the dark contented till he had sold the man, also, into the slavery of the shadow world. Then the grim old wizard beckoned the wind with a hand of cloud, and bade it plash little gusts of mist into the two unreal, spellbound faces. It may have been the cold. It may have been the utter lonesomeness of the night that drew her close to him, but she came, and was not afraid.
Again he reached over her, and again tucked the wraps closer than ever about her, and the fumbling touches of his hands awakened the girl's new self to a delightful realization of the fact that a new being had come to her out of the darkness. She came even closer to this new-found presence, and almost cuddled against the man's great coat, and snuggled under his arm that rested loosely upon the cushions behind her. Their talk, which had been growing more and more serious, gradually stopped. The horses jogged on in the night, and the rattle of the harness and the wheels beat a broken tattoo, muffled at times by the complaining wind, while the wizard of the dark worked his grotesque enchantment.
"Are you cold -- dear?" the young man asked, when he felt her come close to him. His words and his tone startled the girl and almost broke the spell. Flora McCray struggled a moment with the Girl in the Dark, and shuddered in despair as a voice from the Girl, who felt a strong arm quiet her, answered: "A little."
Scoff your noisy guffaws with the flapping curtains, whistle your sneers in the dead weed stalks, and mumble your pious warnings among the telegraph wires by the roadside wind of the Willow Creek prairies; you cannot break the spell. Throw yourself upon the hillside, roll over and over in your convulsions of derision. The charm you would dissolve is only sweetened when the sorcerer of the night turns your antics into uncouth mysteries and your machinations into worldless passion songs.
As the lights of the town came in sight the young couple grew silent. A turn in the road brought the buggy under the white glare of an electric light. Flora McCray was sitting upright with her hands folded under the robe, and Howard, with the whip and the lines in his hands, was consciously clucking at the horses. Each saw the other's face clearly, and as they crossed the circle of light the man spoke:
"It must be two o'clock."
The girl did not reply, and the young man leaned over to look out of the buggy, as if to scan the clouds. The prospect did not altogether satisfy him and he said:
"It's going to be a pretty gloomy Sunday, I guess."
As Howard put out his arms to help her from the buggy she barely touched his outstretched hand, and her decided shyness surprised him. In a bewilderment of confusion he said:
"You have made me very happy tonight -- Miss McCray. Shall I speak to your father when I come out to dinner to-morrow?"
The girl did not reply, but went up the steps and into the house, while the young man climbed into his buggy, and beat time with the whip to the tune he was whistling, as he gave the horses the rein for the stable.
Flora McCray locked the door and slipped the bolt as quietly as she could. She blew out the light in the parlor and stole noiselessly upstairs, avoiding, as was her wont in using the stairs at night, the creaky step at the landing, that always wakened her mother. After entering her room she turned up the light and at once began taking off her outer wraps. This prim, shy, old-fashioned girl had, from her earliest childhood, observed habits of precise neatness. This evening she went about her room, hanging up every garment that belonged on a hook and folding away every one that belonged elsewhere. To outward view, she was a placid, methodical, emotionless being -- perhaps she, herself, did not notice that she avoided facing the mirror as she took down her hair -- yet strong feelings were working within her. Just before going to bed she started to put away her hat. She picked it up. The velvet and the ribbon seemed crushed. She put out her hand to smooth them. A hot flush of recollection swept over her, and she put the hat down. She did not look at it again, but blew out the light and went to bed with her face turned from the guilty reminder. And all night long Flora McCray lashed herself for the folly of the Girl in the Dark. And all night long Flora McCray scourged her very self for a very impossible self, blaming her very modest self for an hour that she could not explain, and putting her flushed face under the pillow when she remembered for what it had been upturned so eagerly in the dark. In her abject remorse, it seemed to her that she was the only guilty one -- the man was only a means, not an agent in the fancied transgression. As she remembered it, she had made all the advances; he had only been kind and good to her.
The next morning, all of Willow Creek knew that John Howard had taken Flora McCray to Robinson's the night before, and that he was going to eat Sunday dinner with the McCrays that afternoon. But the town, as usual, was divided. One half claimed that the McCrays had to have all of Howard's money, or they would fail; and the other half held that John Howard was going to marry Flora McCray to keep the old man from prosecuting him for running off mortgaged cattle and reporting them as dead. And in the whole town no one could have been so thoroughly surprised as was Mr. McCray, when his daughter said to him, "Father, if Mr. Howard says anything to you about me, you will tell him -- that -- I cannot -- marry him."
McCray and his daughter were walking along the narrow, rough sidewalk toward the church, when these words were spoken. The mother had dropped back and was not in hearing distance. McCray could only find voice for a few exclamatory "whys" and "whats" before his daughter had said firmly, "You will be sure, won't you, Father?" and was waiting for her mother to catch up with them. After the service, the women, Flora and her mother among them, hurried home to attend to the feast of the day, and the men, after lounging around the postoffice, sauntered home, newspapers in hand. With this crowd, came McCray and his young partner. For a while in their walk they talked very low and earnestly, and then seemed to cheer up and be concerned only with the commonplaces.
At the dinner table the young people met for the first time that day. Flora McCray felt keenly, and with a twinge of anguish, that the young man's cordial suavity in greeting her was only inspired by gratitude for her generosity in releasing him from any obligation.
She met his eye, and thought she read there a recollection of everything that had been. Then, as she looked down and away, all the sweetness and unreality of the night's ride was made real to her. A turn of his head brought his profile into relief, and she thought of how handsome he had looked out in the night, and of how tender he had been with her. While the young man chatted on idly with her father, the girl was silent, as she always was, when there were visitors at the house.
After dinner the men went into the parlor, where they smoked and talked alone, while the women put away the best china, afraid to trust it to the "hired girl." Finally, young Howard and Mr. McCray thought that the evening mail would be in and distributed. They put on their overcoats and were in the hall, when the elder man opened the dining room door and said:
"Mother, John thinks it's time to go, and I am going to walk down to the postoffice with him."
When the front door closed Mrs. McCray said:
"What a nice, young man John Howard is, isn't he?"
"Oh, yes, he is nice enough, I guess," answered the daughter, rising to go to her room.
As she neared the top of the stairs, Flora McCray quickened her pace. She ran through the upper hall. Once in her room, she went straight to the dresser where the rumpled hat was still lying. The lonely girl stood before it a moment, and then, stooping awkwardly, touched the crumpled velvet with pursed, uncertain lips, as one ashamed. It may have been the dusk in the room, or it may have been the ghost of an odor from a cigar, that transported this unschooled heart back to the darkness, and the joy of a first caress. But dusk, or ghost, or something came to this shy girl there, and nerved her whole being, so that she was no longer awkward, no longer uncertain, nor in any wise ashamed. The pretty velvet toy she made her shrine, and in her worship she kissed it, rubbed it with her burning cheek, and buried her face in its sacred folds.
In Willow Creek where they scoff and haggle over sordid things, in Willow Creek the hard, the arid, the barren, they say -- no matter what -- but in and out of the narrow ways, turning the sharp corners with the rest, with tired feet, and timid, unsure hands, there goes a woman whose womanhood came to her as a dream -- in the night.