Feeling that first efforts, even on life-preservers, should not be long ones, it was soon after they returned to the library that Katie threw out: "Well, Ann, if that letter must be written—"
Ann rose. "Yes, and it must."
"But morning is the time for letter writing," urged Wayne.
"Morning in this instance is the time for shopping," said Kate.
She had left Ann at the foot of the stairs, murmuring something about having to see Nora. It was a half hour later that she looked in upon her.
What she saw was too much for Katie. Had the whole of creation been wrecked by her laughing, Katie must needs have laughed just then.
For Ann's two hands gripped "Days in Florence" with fierce resolution. Ann's head was bent over the book in a sort of stern frenzy. Ann, not even having waited to disrobe, was attacking Florence as the good old city had never been attacked before.
She seemed to get the significance of Katie's laugh, however, for it was as to a confederate she whispered: "I'll get caught!"
"Trust me," said Kate, and laughed from a new angle.
Ann could laugh, too, and when Katie sat down to "talk it over" they were that most intimate of all things in the world, two girls with a secret, two girls set apart from all the world by that secret they held from all the world, hugging between them a beautiful, brilliant secret and laughing at the rest of the world because it couldn't get in. That secret, shared and recognized and laughed over and loved, did what no amount of sympathy or gratitude could have done. It was as if the whole situation heaved a sigh of relief and settled itself in more comfortable position.
"Why no," sparkled Kate, in response to Ann's protestation, "the only thing you have to do is not to try. Lovers of Italy must take their Italy with a superior calm. And when you don't know what to say—just seem too full for utterance. That being too full for utterance throws such a safe and lovely cover over the lack of utterance. And if you fear you're mixed up just look as though you were going to cry. Wayne will be so terrified at that prospect that he'll turn the conversation to air-ships, and you'll always be safe with Wayne in an air-ship because he'll do all the talking himself."
Ann grew thoughtful. She seemed to have turned back to something. Katie would have given much to know what it was Ann's deep brown eyes were surveying so somberly.
"The strange part of it is," she said, "I used to dream of some such place."
"Of course you did. That's why you belong there. A great deal more than some of us who've tramped miles through galleries." Then swiftly Katie changed her position, her expression and the conversation. "Elizabeth Barrett Browning is your favorite poet, isn't she, Ann?"
"Why—why no," stammered Ann. "I'm afraid I haven't any favorite.
"So much the better. Then you can take Elizabeth without being untrue to any one else. She loved Florence. You know she's buried there. I think you used to make pilgrimages to her tomb."
Again Ann turned back, and at what she saw smiled a little, half bitterly, half wistfully. "I'd like to have made pilgrimages somewhere."
"To be sure you would. That's why you did. The things we would like to have done, and would have done if we could, are lots more part of us than just the things we did do because we had to do them. Just consider that all those things you'd like to have done are things you did. It will make you feel at home with yourself. And to-morrow we'll go over the river and order Elizabeth Barrett Browning and a tailored suit."
But with that the girl who would like to have done things receded, leaving baldly exposed the girl who had done the things she had had to do. "No," said Ann stubbornly and sullenly.
"But blue gingham morning dress and rose-colored evening dress are scarcely sufficient unto one's needs," murmured Kate.
Ann turned away her head. "I can't take things—not things like that."
"But why not?" pursued Kate. "Why can't you take as well as I can take?"
She turned upon her hotly, as if resentful of being toyed with. "How silly! It is yours."
Katie had said it at random, but once expressed it interested her.
"Why I don't know whether it is or not," she said, suddenly more
interested in the idea itself than in its effect upon Ann. "Why is it?
I didn't earn it."
"There's no use talking that way. It's yours because you've got it." That not seeming to bring ethical satisfaction she added: "It's yours because your family earned it."
Katie was unfastening the muslin gown. "But as a matter of fact,"—getting more and more interested—"they didn't. They didn't earn it. They just got it. What they earned they had to use to live on. This that is left over is just something my grandfather fell upon through luck. Then why should it be mine now—any more than yours?"
Ann deemed her intelligence insulted. "That's ridiculous."
"Well now I don't know whether it is or not." She was silent for a moment, considering it. "But anyhow," she came back to the issue, "we have our hands on this money, so we'll get the suit. You're in the army now, Ann. You're enlisted under me, and I'll have no insubordination. You know—into the jaws of death!—Even so into the jaws of Elizabeth Barrett Browning—and a tailor-made suit!"
So Katie laughed herself out of the room.
And softly she whistled herself back into the library. The whistling did not seem to break through the smoke which surrounded Wayne. After several moments of ostentatious indifference, she threw out at him, with a conspicuous yawn: "Well, Wayne, what did you think of the terrifying jeune fille?"
Wayne's reply was long in coming, simple, quiet, and queer: "She's a lady."
Startled, peculiarly gratified, impishly delighted, she yet replied lightly: "A lady, is she? Um. Once at school one of the girls said she had a 'trade-last' for me, and after I had searched the closets of memory and dragged out that some one had said she had pretty eyes, dressed it up until this some one had called her ravishingly beautiful—after all that conscientious dishonesty what does she tell me but that some one had said I was so 'clean-looking.' One rather takes 'clean-looking' for granted! Even so with our friends being ladies. Quaint old word for you to resurrect, Wayne."
"Yes," he laughed, "quite quaint. But she seems to me just that old-fashioned thing our forefathers called a lady. Now we have good fellows, and thoroughbreds, and belongers. Not many of this girl's type."
Katie wanted to chuckle. But suddenly the unborn chuckle dissolved into a sea of awe.
Thoughts and smoke seemed circling around Wayne together; and perhaps the blue rim of it all was dreams. His face was not what one would expect the face of a man engaged in making warfare more deadly to be as he murmured, not to Katie but to the thin outer rim, softly, as to rims barely material: "And more than that—a woman."
He puzzled her. "Well, Wayne," she laughed, "aren't you getting a little—cryptic? I certainly told you—by implication—that she was both a lady and a woman. Then why this air of discovery?"
But it did not get Katie into the smoke. He made no effort to get her in, but after a moment came back to her with a kindly: "I am glad you have such a friend, Katie. It will do you good."
That inward chuckle showed no disposition to dissolve into anything; it fought hard to be just a live, healthy chuckle.
Moved by an impulse half serious, half mischievous she asked: "You would say then, Wayne, that Ann seems to you more of a lady than Zelda Fraser?"
Wayne's real answer lay in his look of disgust. He did condescend to put into words: "Oh, don't be absurd, Katie."
"But Zelda has a splendid ancestry," she pressed.
"And suggests a chorus girl."
That stilled her. It left her things to think about.
At last she asked: "And Wayne, which would you say I was?"
He came back from a considerable distance. "Which of what?"
"Lady or chorus girl?"
He looked at her and smiled. Katie was all aglow with the daring of her adventure. "I should say, Katie dear, that you were a half-breed."
"What a sounding thing to be! But Major Darrett in his last letter tells me I am his idea of a thoroughbred. How can I be a half-breed if I'm a thoroughbred?"
"True, it makes you a biological freak. But you should be too original to complain of that."
"But I do complain. It sounds like something with three legs. Not but what I'd rather be a biological freak than a grind—or a prude."
"Be at peace," drily advised Wayne.
"Ann was quiet to-night," mused Katie, feeling an irresistible desire to get back to her post of duty, not because there was any need for her being there, but merely because she liked the post. "She felt a little strange, I think. She has been much alone and with people of a different sort."
"And I presume it never occurred to you, Katie, that neither Ann nor I was fairly surfeited with opportunities for conversational initiative? Just drop me a hint sometime when you are not going to be at home, will you? I should like a chance to get acquainted with your friend."
Katie was straightway the hen with feathers ruffled over her brood. "You must be careful, Wayne," she clucked at him. "When you are alone with Ann please try to avoid all unpleasant subjects, or anything you see she would rather not talk about."
"Thanks awfully for the hint," returned Wayne quietly. "I had been meaning to speak first of her father's funeral. I thought I would follow that with a searching inquiry into her mother's last illness. But of course if you think this not wise I am glad to be guided by your judgment, Katie."
"Wayne!" she reproached laughingly. "Now you know well enough! I simply meant if you saw Ann wished to avoid a subject, not to pursue it."
"Thanks again, dear Sister Kate, for these easy lessons in behavior. Rule 1—"
But she waved it laughingly aside, rising to leave him. "Just the same," she maintained, from the doorway, "experience may make the familiar things—and dear things—the very things of which one wishes least to speak. Talk to Ann about the army, Wayne; talk about—"
But as he was holding out note-book and pencil she beat grimacing retreat.
That night Miss Jones dreamed. The world had been all shaken up and everything was confused and no one could put it to rights. All those dames whose ancestors had sailed unknown waters were in the front row of the chorus, and all the chorus girls were dancing a stately minuet at Old Point Comfort. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was trying to commit suicide by becoming a biological freak, and the Madonna of the Chair was wearing a smartly tailored brown rajah suit.