She had only known him for about twenty days—"The man who mends the boats"—but she had fallen into the way of referring all interesting questions to him. That was perhaps the more remarkable as her eyes had never rested upon him.
One morning Worth had looked up from some comparative measurements of the tails of Pourquoi and N'est-ce-pas to demand: "Why, Aunt Kate, what do you think?"
"There are times," replied Aunt Kate, looking over at the girl swaying in the hammock, humming gently to herself, "when I don't know just what to think."
"Well sir, what do you think? The man that mends the boats knows more 'an Watts!"
"Worthie," she admonished, "it's bad business for an army man to turn traitor."
"But yes, he does. 'Cause I asked Watts why Pourquoi had more yellow than white, and why N'est-ce-pas was more white 'an yellow, and he said I sure had him there. He'd be blowed if he knew, and he guessed nobody did, 'less maybe the Almighty had some ideas about it; but yesterday I asked the man that mends the boats, and he explained it—oh a whole lot of long words, Aunt Kate. More long words 'an I ever heard before."
"And the explanation? I trust it was satisfactory?"
"I guess it was," replied Worth uncertainly. "'Twas an awful lot of long words."
"My experience, too," laughed Aunt Kate.
"With the man that mends the boats?"
"No, with other sages. You see when they're afraid to stay down here on the ground with us any longer, afraid they'll be hit with a question that will knock them over, they get into little air-ships they have and hurl the long words down at our heads until we're too stunned to ask any more questions, and in such wise is learning disseminated."
"I'll ask the man that mends the boats if he's got any air-ships. He's got most everything up there."
"Oh, up there,"—with vague nod toward the head of the Island.
"He says he'd like to get acquainted with you, Aunt Kate. He says he really believes you might be worth knowing."
Thereupon Aunt Kate's book fell to the floor with a thud of amazement that reverberated indignation. "Well upon my word!" gasped she. Then, recovering her book—and more—"Why what a kindly gentleman he must be," she drawled.
"Oh yes, he's kind. He's awful kind, I guess. He'll talk to you any time you want him to, Aunt Kate. He'll tell you just anything you want to know. He said you must be a—I forgot the word."
"Oh no, you haven't," wheedled Aunt Kate. "Try to think of it, dearie."
"Can't think of it now. Shall I ask him again?"
"Certainly not! How preposterous! As if it made the slightest difference in the world!"
But it made difference enough for Aunt Kate to ask a moment later: "And how did it happen, Worthie, that this kindly philosopher should have deemed me worth knowing?"
"Oh, I don't know. 'Cause he liked the puppies' names, I guess. I told
him how their mother was just Queen, but how they was Pourquoi and
N'est-ce-pas—a 'quirer and 'versalist and so then he said: 'And which is
"Which is Aunt Kate? What did he mean?"
"'Is she content to be just Queen,' he said, 'or is she'—there was a lot of long words, you wouldn't understand them, Aunt Kate—I didn't either—'does she show a puppyish tendon'—tendon something—'to butt into the universe?'"
Suddenly Aunt Kate's face grew pink and she sat straight. "Worth, was this one of the men?"
"Oh no, Aunt Kate. He's not one of the men. He's just a man. He's the man that mends the boats."
"'The man that mends the boats!' He sounds like a creature in flowing robes out of a mythology book, or the being expressing the high and noble sentiments calling everybody down in a new-thoughtish play."
From time to time Worth would bring word of him. What boats does he mend, Aunt Kate wanted to know, and what business has he landing them on our Island? To which came the answer that he mended boats sick unto death with speed mania and other social disease, and that he didn't land them on the Island, but on an island off the tip of the Island, a tiny island which the Lord had thoughtlessly left lying disrespectfully close to the Isle of Dignity. Katie was too true a romancer to inquire closely about the man who mended the boats, for she liked to think of him as an unreal being who only touched the earth off the tip of the Island, and only touched humanity through Worth. That wove something alluringly mysterious—and mysteriously alluring—about the man who made sick boats well, whereas had she given rein to the possibility of his belonging to the motorboat factory across the river, and scientifically testing gasoline engines it would be neither proper nor interesting that her young nephew should run back and forth with pearls of wit and wisdom. It developed that Worth visited this tip of the Island with the ever faithful Watts, and that one day the boat mender and Watts had—oh just the awfulest fight with words Worth had ever heard. It was about the Government, which the man who mended the boats said was running on one cylinder, drawing from patriotic Watts the profane defense that it had all the power it needed for blowing up just such fools as that! He further held that soldiers were first-class dishwashers and should be brave enough to demand first-class dishwashing pay. Katie had chuckled over that. But she had puzzled rather than chuckled over the statement that the first war the saddles manufactured on that Island would see would be the war over the manufacturing of them. Now what in the world had he meant by that? She had asked Wayne, but Wayne had seemed so seriously interested in the remark, and asked such direct questions as to who made it, that she had tried to cover her tracks, thinking perhaps the man who mended the boats could be thrown into the guard-house for saying such dark things about army saddles.
On the way home from that talk Watts had branded the man who mended the boats as one of them low-down anarchists that ought to be shot at sunrise. Things was as they was, held Watts, and how could anybody but a fool expect them to be any way but the way they was? It showed what he was—and after that Worth had had no more fireworks of thought for a week, Watts standing guard over the world as it was.
But he slipped into an odd place in Katie's life of wonderings and fancyings, and that life of musing and questioning was so big and so real a life in those days. He was something to shoot things out at, to hang things to. She held imaginary conversations with him, demolished him in imaginary arguments only to stand him up and demolish him again. Sometimes she quite winked with him at the world as it was, and at other times she withdrew to lofty heights and said cutting things. In more friendly mood she asked him questions, sometimes questions he could not answer, and she could not answer them either, and then their thoughts would hover around together, brooding over a world of unanswerable things. All her life she had held those imaginary conversations, but heretofore it had been with her horse, her dog, the trees, a white cloud against the blue, something somewhere. None of the hundreds of nice people she knew had ever moved her to imaginary conversations. And so now it was stimulating—energizing—not to have to diffuse her thought into the unknown, but to direct it at, and through, the man who mended the boats and said strange things to Worth up at the tip of the Island.
And he came at a time when she had great need of him. Never before had there been so many things to start one on imaginary conversations, conversations which ended usually in a limitless wondering. Since Ann had come the simplest thought had a way of opening a door into a vast country.
Too many doors were opening that afternoon. She was making no headway with the letters she had told herself she would dispose of while Ann and Captain Prescott were out on the links.
The letter from Harry Prescott's mother was the most imperative. She was returning from California and sent some inquiries as to the habitability of her son's house.
Katie was thinking, as she re-read it, that it was a letter with a background. It expressed one whom dead days loved well. The writer of the letter seemed to be holding in life all those gentlewomen who had formed her.
In a short time Mrs. Prescott would be at the Arsenal. That meant a more difficult game. Did it also mean an impossible one?
Yet Katie would prefer showing her Ann to Mrs. Prescott than to Zelda Fraser. Zelda, the fashionable young woman, would pounce upon the absence of certain little tricks and get no glimmer of what Katie vaguely called the essence. Might not Mrs. Prescott find the reality in the possibilities? "It comes to this," Katie suddenly saw, "I'm not shamming, I'm revealing. I'm not vulgarly imitating; I'm restoring. The connoisseur should be the first to appreciate that."
It turned her off into one of those long paths of wondering, paths which sometimes seemed to circle the whole of the globe. It was on those paths she frequently found the man who mended the boats waiting for her. Sometimes he was irritating, turning off into little by-paths, by-paths leading off to the dim source of things. Katie could not follow him there; she did not know her way; and often, as to-day, he turned off there just when she was most eager to ask him something. She would ask him what he thought about backgrounds. How much there was in that thing of having the background all prepared for one, in simply fitting into the place one was expected to fit into. How many people would create for themselves the background it was assumed they belonged in just because they had been put in it? Suddenly she laughed. She had a most absurd vision of Jove—Katie believed it would be Jove—standing over humanity with some kind of heroic feather duster and mightily calling "Shoo!—Shoo!—Move on!—Every fellow find his place for himself!"
Such a scampering as there would be! And how many would be let stay in the places where they had been put? Who would get the nice corners it had been taken for granted certain people should have just because they had been fixed up for them in advance? How about the case of Miss Katherine Wayneworth Jones? Would she be ranked out of quarters?
Certain it was that a very choice corner had been fitted up for said Katherine Wayneworth Jones. People said that she belonged in her corner; that no one else could fit it, that she could not as well fit anywhere else. But she was not at all sure that under the feather duster act that would give her the right of possession. People were so stupid. Just because they saw a person sitting in a place they held that was the place for that person to be sitting. Katie almost wished that mighty "Shoo!" would indeed reverberate 'round the world. It would be such fun to see them scamper and squirm. And would there not be the keenest of satisfaction in finding out what sort of place one would fit up for one's self if none had been fitted up for one in advance?
Few people were called upon to prove themselves. Most people judged people as they judged pictures at an exhibition. They went around with a catalogue and when they saw a good name they held that they saw a good picture. And when they did not know the name, even though the picture pleased them, they waited around until they heard someone else saying good things, then they stood before it murmuring, "How lovely."
She had put Ann in the catalogue; she had seen to it that she was properly hung, and she herself had stood before her proclaiming something rare and fine. That meant that Ann was taken for granted. And being taken for granted meant nine-tenths the battle.
It would be fun to fool the catalogue folks. And she need have no compunctions about lowering the standard of art because the picture she had found out in the back room and surreptitiously hung in the night belonged in the gallery a great deal more than some of the pictures which had been solemnly carried in the front way. It was the catalogue folks, rather than the lovers of art, were being imposed upon.
And Mrs. Prescott, though to be sure a maker of catalogues, was also a lover of art. There lay Katie's hope for her, and apology to her.
Though she was apprehensive, a stronger light was to be turned on—that was indisputable. "You and I know, dear Queen," Katie confided to the member of her sex lying at her feet, "that men are not at all difficult. You can get them to swallow most anything—if the girl in the case is beautiful enough. And feminine enough! Masculine dotes on discovering feminine—but have you ever noticed what the rest of the feminine dote on doing to that discovery? Women can even look at wondrous soft brown eyes and lovely tender mouths through those 'Who was your father?' 'specs' they keep so well dusted. The manner of holding a teacup is more important than the heart's deep dreams. When it comes to passing inspection, the soul's not in it with the fork. We know 'em—don't we, old Queen?"
Queen wagged concurrence, and Katie pulled herself sternly back to her letters.
Mrs. Prescott spoke of the chance of her son's being ordered away. "I hope not," she wrote, "for I want the quiet summer for him. And for myself, too. The great trees and the river, and you there, dear Katie, it seems the thing I most desire. But we of the army learn often to relinquish the things we most desire. We, the homeless, for in the abiding sense we are homeless, make homes possible. Think of it with pride sometimes, Katie. Our girls think of it all too little now. I sometimes wonder how they can forego that just pride in their traditions. During this spring in the West my thoughts have many times turned to those other days, days when men like your father and my husband performed the frontier service which made the West of to-day possible. Recently at a dinner I heard a young woman, one of the 'advanced' type, and I am sorry to say of army people, speak laughingly to one of our men of the uselessness of the army. She was worthy nothing but scorn, or I might have spoken of some of the things your mother and I endured in those days of frontier posts. And now we have a California—serene—fruitful—and can speak of the uselessness of the army! Does the absurdity of it never strike them?"
Katie pondered that; wondered if Mrs. Prescott's attitude and spirit were not passing with the frontier. Few of the army girls she knew thought of themselves as homeless, or gave much consideration to that thing of making other homes possible, save, to be sure, the homes they were hoping—and plotting—to make for themselves. And she could not see that the "young woman" was answered. The young woman had not been talking about traditions. Probably the young woman would say that yesterday having made to-day possible it was quite time to be quit of yesterday. "Though to be sure," Katie now answered her, "while we may not seem to be doing anything, we're keeping something from being done, and that perhaps is the greatest service of all. Were it not for us and our dear navy we should be sailed on from East and West, marched on from North and South. At least that's what we're told by our superiors, and are you the kind of young woman to question what you're told by your superiors? Because if you are!—I'd like to meet you."
Her letter continued: "Harry writes glowingly of your charming friend. Strange that I am not able to recall her, though to be sure I knew little of you in those years abroad. Was she a school friend? I presume so. Harry speaks of her as 'the dear sort of girl,' not leaving a clear image in my mind. But soon my vision will be cleared."
"Oh, will it?" mumbled Kate. "I don't know whether it will or not. 'The dear sort of girl!' And I presume the young goose thought he had given a vivid picture."
She turned to Major Darrett's note: a charming note it was to turn to. He had the gift of making himself very real—and correspondingly attractive—in those notes.
A few days before she had been telling Ann about Major Darrett. "He's a bachelor," she had said, "and a joy." Ann had looked vague, and Katie laughed now in seeing that her characterization was broad as "the dear sort of girl."
It was probable Major Darrett would relieve one of the officers at the
Arsenal. He touched it lightly. "Should fate—that part of it dwelling in
Washington—waft me to your Island, Katie Jones, I foresee a summer to
compensate me for all the hard, cruel, lonely years."
Kate smiled knowingly; not that she actually knew much to be knowing about.
She wondered why she did not disapprove of Major Darrett. Certain she was that some of the things which had kept his years from being hard, cruel, and lonely were in the category for disapproval. But he managed them so well; one could not but admire his deftness, and admiration was weakening to disapproval. One disapproved of things which offended one, and in this instance the results of the things one knew one should disapprove were so far from offensive that one let it go at smiling knowingly, mildly disapproving of one's self for not disapproving.
Ann had not responded enthusiastically to Katie's drawing of Major Darrett. She had not seemed to grasp the idea that much was forgiven the very charming; that ordinary standards were not rigidly applied to the extraordinarily fascinating. When Katie was laughingly telling of one of the Major's most interesting flirtations Ann's eyes had seemed to crouch back in that queer way they had. Katie had had an odd sense of Ann's disapproving of her—disapproving of her for her not disapproving of him. More than once Ann had given her that sense of being disapproved of.
As with all things in the universe just then, he was a new angle back to Ann. If he were to come there—? For Major Darrett would not at all disapprove of those eyes of Ann's. And yet his own eyes would see more than Wayne and Harry Prescott had seen. Major Darrett had been little on the frontier, but much in the drawing-room; he had never led up San Juan hill, but he had led many a cotillion. He had had that form of military training which makes society favorites. As to Ann, he would have the feminine "specs" and the masculine delight at one and the same time. What of that union?
Katie's eyes began to dance. She hoped he would come. He would be a foe worthy her steel. She would have to fix up all her fortifications—look well to her ammunition. Whatever might be held against Major Darrett it could not be said he was not worthy one's cleverest fabrications. But the triumph of holding one's own with a veteran!
Then of a sudden she wondered what the man who mended the boats would think of the Major.