It would indeed seem so. Men looking from the windows of the big shops—those great shops where army supplies were manufactured—noticed them with much the same thought, some of them admiringly, some resentfully, as they chanced to feel about things. They drove past building after building, buildings in which hundreds of men toiled on preparations for a possible war. The throb of those engines, sight of the perspiring faces, might suggest that rather large, a trifle extravagant, a bit cumbersome, was the price for peace. But these girls did not seem to be thinking of the possible war, or of the men who earned their bread thwarting it by preparation. One would suppose them to be just two beautifully cared for, careless-of-life girls, thinking of what some man had said at the dance the night before, or of the texture of the plume on some one's hat, or, to get down to the really serious issues of life, whether or not they could afford that love of a dinner gown.
They left the main avenue and were winding in and out of the by-roads, roads which had all the care of a great park and all the charm of the deep woods. Here and there were soldiers doing nothing more warlike than raking grass or repairing roads. It seemed far removed from the stress and the struggle, place where the sense of protection but contributed to the sense of freedom. There would come occasional glimpses of the river, the beautiful homes and great factories of the busy, prosperous, middle-western city opposite. To the other side was a town, too, a little city of large enterprises; to either side seethed the questions of steel, and all those attendant questions of mind and heart whose pressure grew ever bigger and whose safety valves seemed tested to their uttermost. To either side the savage battles of peace, and there in between—an island—the peaceful preparations for war.
And in such places, sheltered, detached, yet offered all she would have from without, had always lived Katie Jones, a favorite child of the favored men whom precautions against war offered so serene a life; surrounded by friends who were likewise removed from the battles of peace to the peace of possible war, knowing the social struggle only as it touched their own detached questions of pay and rank, pleasant and stupid posts, hospitable and inhospitable commandants.
And into this had rushed a victim of the battles of peace! From the stony paths of peace there to the well-kept roads of war!
The irony of it struck Katie anew: the incongruity of choosing so well-regulated a place for the performance of so disorderly an act as the taking of one's life. Choosing army headquarters as the place in which to desert from the army of life! Such an infringement of discipline as seeking self-destruction in that well-ordered spot where the machinery of destruction was so peacefully accumulated!
She looked covertly at Ann; she could do it, for the girl seemed for the most part unconscious of her. She was leaning back in the comfortably rounded corner of the stanhope, her hands lax in her lap, her eyes often closed—a tired child of peace drinking in the peace furnished by the military, was Ann. It was plain that Ann was one who could drink things in, could draw beauty to her as something which was of her, something, too, it seemed, of which she had been long in need. Could it be that in the big outside world into which these new wonderings were sent, world which they seemed to penetrate but such a little way, there were many who did not find their own? Might it not be that some of the most genuine Florentines had never been to Florence?
And because all this was of Ann, it was banishing the things it could not assimilate. Those hurt looks, fretted looks, that hard look, already Kate had come to know them, would come, but always to go as Ann would swiftly raise her head to get the song of a bird, or yield her face to the caress of a soft spring breeze. Katie was grateful to the benign breezes, rich with the messages of opening buds, full, tender, restoring, which could blow away hard memories and bitter visions. Yet those same breezes had blown yesterday. Why could they not reach then? What was it had closed the door and shut in those things that were killing Ann? What were those things that had filled up and choked Ann's poor soul?
From a hundred different paths she kept approaching it, could not keep away from it. One read of those things in the papers; they had always seemed to concern a people apart, to be pitied, but not understood, much less reached. Overwhelming that one who had wished to kill one's self should be enjoying anything! That a door so tragically shut should open to so simple a knock! Mere human voice reach that incomprehensible outermost brink! Were they not people different, but just people like one's self, who had simply fallen down in the struggle, and only needed some one to help them up, give them a cool drink and chance for a moment's rest? Were the big and the little things so close? One's own kind and the other kind just one kind, after all?
"I love winding roads," Katie was saying, after a long silence. "I suppose the thing so alluring about them is that one can never be sure just what is around the bend. When I was a little girl I used to pretend it was fairies waiting around the next curve, and I have never—"
But she drew in her horse sharply, for the moment at a loss; for it was not fairies, but Captain Prescott, riding smilingly toward them, very handsome on his fine mount.
"It's—one of our officers," she said sharply. "I—I'll have to present him."
"Oh please—please!" was the girl's panic-stricken whisper. "Let me get out! I must! I can't!"
"You can. You must!" commanded Katie. And then she had just time for just an imploring little: "For my sake."
He had halted beside them and Katie was saying, with her usual cool gaiety: "You care for this day, too, do you? We're fairly steeped in it. Ann,"—not with the courage to look squarely at her—"at this moment I present your next-door neighbor. And a very good neighbor he is. We use his telephone when our telephone is discouraged. We borrow his books and bridles; we eat his bread and salt, drink his water and wine—especially his wine—we impose on him in every way known to good neighboring. Yes, to be sure, this is Miss Forrest of whom I told you last night."
As the Captain was looking at Ann and not seeming overpowered with amazement, looking, on the other hand, as though seeing something rarely good to look at, Katie had the courage to look too. And at what she saw her heart swelled quite as the heart of the mother swells when the child speaks his piece unstutteringly. Ann was doing it!—rising to the occasion—meeting the situation. Then she had other qualities no less valuable than looking Florentine. That thing of doing it was a thing that had always commanded the affectionate admiration of Katie Jones.
It was not what Ann did so much as her effective manner of doing nothing. One would not say she lacked assurance; one would put it the other way—that she seemed shy. It seemed to Katie she looked for all the world like a startled bird, and it also seemed that Captain Prescott particularly admired startled birds.
He turned and rode a little way beside them, he and Katie assuming conversational responsibilities. But Ann's smile warmed her aloofness, and her very shyness seemed well adjusted to her fragility. "And just fits in with what I told him!" gloated Kate. And though she said so little, for some reason, perhaps because she looked so different, one got the impression of her having said something unusual. She had a way of listening which conveyed the impression she could say things worth listening to—if she chose. One took her on faith.
He said to her at the last, with that direct boyish smile it seemed could not frighten even a startled bird: "You think you are going to like it here?" And Ann replied, slowly, a tremor in her voice, and a child's earnestness and sweetness in it too: "I think it the most beautiful place I ever saw in all my life."
At the simple enough words his face softened strangely. It was with an odd gentleness he said he hoped they could all have some good times together.
But, the moment conquered, things which it had called up swept in. The whole of it seemed to rush in upon her.
She turned harshly upon Katie. "This is—ridiculous! I'm going away to-night!"
"We will talk it over this evening," replied Kate quietly. "You will wait for that, won't you? I have something to suggest. And in the end you will be at liberty to do exactly as you think best. Certainly there can be no question as to that."
On their way home they encountered the throng of men from the shops—dirty, greasy, alien. It was not pleasant—meeting the men when one was driving. And yet, though certainly distasteful, they interested Katie, perhaps just because they were so different. She wondered how they lived and what they talked about.
Chancing to look at Ann, she saw that stranger than the men was the look with which Ann regarded them. She could not make it out. But one thing she did see—the soft spring breezes had much yet to do.
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