Two hours later she found herself alone on the porch with Captain
A good deal had happened in the meantime.
Mrs. Prescott had arrived during Katie's absence, a stop-over of two weeks having been shortened to two hours because of the illness of her friend. Her room at her son's quarters being uninhabitable because of fresh paint, Wayne had insisted she come to them, and she was even then resting up in Ann's room, or rather the room which had been put at her disposal, a bed having been arranged for Ann in Katie's room. Had Katie been at home she would have planned it some other way, for above all things she did not want it to occur to Ann that she was in the way. But Katie had been very busy talking to the man who mended the boats, and naturally it would not occur to Wayne that Ann would be at all sensitive about giving up her room for a few days to accommodate a dear old friend of theirs. And perhaps she was not sensitive about it, only this was no time, Katie felt, to make Ann feel she was crowding any one.
And in Katie's absence "Pet" had been shot. Pet had not seemed to realize that alley methods of defense were not in good repute in the army. He could not believe that Pourquoi and N'est-ce-pas had no guile in their hearts when they pawed at him. Furthermore, he seemed to have a prejudice against enlisted men and showed his teeth at several of them. Katie began to explain that that was because—but Wayne had curtly cut her short with saying that he didn't care why it was, the fact that it was had made it impossible to have the dog around. If one of the men had been bitten by the contemptible cur Katie couldn't cauterize the wound with the story of the dog's hard life.
The only bright spot she could find in it was that probably Watts had taken a great deal of pleasure in executing Wayne's orders—and Caroline Osborne said that all needed pleasure.
She saw that Ann's hands were clenched, and so had not pursued the discussion.
Katie was not in high favor with her brother that night. He said it was outrageous she should not have been there to receive Mrs. Prescott. When Katie demurred that she would have been less outrageous had she had the slightest notion Mrs. Prescott would be there to be received, it developed that Wayne was further irritated because he had come to take Ann out for a boat ride—and Katie had gone in the boat—heaven only knew where! Then when Katie sought to demolish that irritation with the suggestion that just then was the most beautiful time of day for the river—and she knew it would do Ann good to go—Wayne clung manfully to his grievance, this time labeling it worry. He forbade Katie's going any more by herself. It was preposterous she should have stayed so long. He would have been out looking for her had it not been that Watts had been able to get a glimpse of the boat pulled in on the upper island.
Katie wondered what else Watts had been able to get a glimpse of.
Wayne was so bent on being abused (hot days affected people differently) that the only way she could get him to relinquish a grievance for a pleasure was to put it in the form of a duty. Ann needed a ride on the river, Katie affirmed, and so they had gone, Wayne doing his best to cover his pleasure.
"Men never really grow up," she mused to Wayne's back. "Every so often they have to act just like little boys. Only little boys aren't half so apt to do it."
Though perhaps Wayne had been downright disappointed at not having the boat for Ann when he came home. Was he meaning to deliver that lecture on the army? She hoped that whatever he talked about it would bring Ann home without that strained, harassed look.
And now Katie was talking to Captain Prescott and thinking of the man who mended the boats. Captain Prescott was a good one to be talking to when one wished to be thinking of some one else. He called one to no dim, receding distances.
She was thinking that in everything save the things which counted most he was not unlike this other man—name unknown. Both were well-built, young, vigorous, attractive. But life had dealt differently with them, and they were dealing differently with life. That made a difference big as life itself.
From the far country in which she was dreaming she heard Captain Prescott talking about girls. He was talking sentimentally, but even his sentiment opened no vistas.
And suddenly she remembered how she had at one time thought it possible she would marry him. The remembrance appalled her; less in the idea of marrying him than in the consciousness of how far she had gone from the place where marrying him suggested itself to her at all.
Life had become different. This showed her how vastly different.
But as he talked on she began to feel that it had not become as different to him as to her. He had not been making little excursions up and down unknown paths. He had remained right in his place. That place seemed to him the place for Katie Jones.
As he talked on—about what he called Life—sublimely unconscious of the fences all around him shutting out all view of what was really life—it became unmistakable that Captain Prescott was getting ready to propose to her. She had had too much experience with the symptoms not to recognize them.
Katie did not want to be proposed to. She was in no mood for dealing with a proposal. She had too many other things to be thinking of, wondering about.
But she reprimanded herself for selfishness. It meant something to him, whether it did to her or not. She must be kind—as kind as she could.
The kindest thing she could think of was to keep him from proposing. To that end she answered every sentimental remark with a flippant one.
It grieved, but did not restrain him. "I had thought you would understand better, Katie," he said.
Something in his voice made her question the kindness of her method.
Better decline a love than laugh at it.
He talked on of how he had, at various times, cared—in a way, he said—for various girls, but had never found the thing he knew was fated to mean the real thing to him; Katie had heard it all before, and always told with that same freedom from suspicion of its ever having been said before. But perhaps it was the very fact that it was familiar made her listen with a certain tenderness. For she seemed to be listening, less to him than to the voice of by-gone days—all those merry, unthinking days which in truth had dealt very kindly and generously with her.
She had a sense of leaving them behind. That alone was enough to make her feel tenderly toward them. Even a place within a high-board fence, intolerable if one thought one were to remain in it, became a kindly and a pleasant spot from the top of the fence. Once free to turn one's face to the wide sweep without, one was quite ready to cast loving looks back at the enclosure.
And so she softened, prepared to deal tenderly with Captain Prescott, as he seemed then, less the individual than the incarnation of outlived days.
It was into that mellowed, sweetly melancholy mood he sent the following:
"And so, Katie, I wanted to talk to you about it. You're such a good pal—such a bully sort—I wanted to tell you that I care for Ann—and want to marry her."
She dropped from the high-board fence with a jolt that well-nigh knocked her senseless.
"I suppose," he said, "that you must have suspected."
"Well, not exactly suspected," said Katie, feeling her bumps, as it were.
Her first emotion was that it was pretty shabby treatment to accord one who was at such pains to be kind. It gave one a distinctly injured feeling—getting all sweet and mellow only to be dashed to the ground and let lie there in that foolish looking—certainly foolish feeling heap!
But as soon as she had picked herself up—and Katie was too gamey to be long in picking herself up—she wondered what under heaven she was going to do about things! What had she let herself in for now! The pains of an injured dignity—throb of a pricked self love—were forgotten in this real problem, confronting her. She even grew too grave to think about how funny it was.
For Katie saw this as genuinely serious.
"Harry," she asked, "have you said anything to your mother?"
"Well, not said anything," he laughed.
"But she knows?"
"Mother's keen," he replied.
"I once thought I was," was Katie's unspoken comment.
"And have you—you are so good as to confide in me, so I presume to ask questions—have you said anything to Ann?"
"No, not said anything," he laughed again.
"But she knows?"
"I don't know. I wondered if you did."
"No," said Katie, "I don't. Truth is I've been so wrapped up in my own affairs—some things I've had on my mind—that I haven't been thinking about people around me falling in love."
"People are always falling in love," he remarked sentimentally. "One should always be prepared for that."
"So it seems," replied Katie. "And yet one is not always—entirely prepared."
She had picked herself up from her fall, but she was not yet able to walk very well. Fortunately he was too absorbed in his own happy striding to mark her hobbling.
A young man talking of his love does not need a brilliant conversationalist for companion.
And he was a young man in love—that grew plain. Had Katie ever seen such eyes? And as for the mouth—though perhaps most remarkable of all was the voice. Just what did it make Katie think of? He enumerated various things it made him think of, only to express his dissatisfaction with them all as inadequate. Had Katie ever seen any one so beautiful? And with such an adorable shy little way? Had Katie ever heard her say anything about him? Did she think he had any chance? Was there any other fellow? Of course there must have been lots of other fellows in love with her—a girl like that—but had she cared for any of them? Would Katie tell him something about her? She had been reserved about herself—the kind of reserve a fellow wouldn't try to break through. Would Katie tell him of her life and her people? Not that it made any difference with him—oh, he wanted just her. But his mother would want to know—Katie knew how mothers were about things like that. And he did want his mother to like her. Surely she would. How could she help it?
She wondered if Ann knew him for a young man in love. Katie's heart hardened against Ann at the possibility. That would not be playing a fair game. Ann was not in position to let Katie's friends fall in love with her. Katie had not counted on that.
"Have you any reason," she asked, "to think Ann cares for you?"
He laughed happily. "N—o; only I don't think it displeases her to have me say nice things to her." And again he laughed.
Then Ann had encouraged him. A girl had no business to encourage a man to say nice things to her when she knew nothing could come of it.
But Katie's memory there nudged Katie's primness; memory of all the men who had been encouraged to say nice things to Katie Jones, even when it was not desirable—or perhaps even possible—that anything could "come of it."
But of course that was different. Ann was in no position to permit nice things being said to her.
"Katie," he was asking, "where did you first meet her? How did you come to know her? Can't you tell me all about it?"
There came a mad impulse to do so. To say: "I first met her right down there at the edge of the water. She was about to commit suicide. I don't know why. I think she was one of those 'Don't You Care' girls you admired in 'Daisey-Maisey.' But I'm not sure of even that. I didn't want her to kill herself, so I took her in and pretended she was a friend of mine. I made the whole thing up. I even made up her name. She said her name was Verna Woods, but I think that's a made-up name, too. I haven't the glimmering of an idea what her real name is, who her people are, where she came from, or why she wanted to kill herself."
First, bitter reproaches for Katie. She would be painted as having violated all the canons.
For the first time, watching her friend's face softened by his dreams, seeing him as his mother's son, she questioned her right to violate them. She did not know why she had not thought more about it before. It had seemed such a joke on the people in the enclosure. But it was not going to be a joke to hurt them. Was that what came of violating the canons? Was the hurt to one's friends the punishment one got for it?
"You can't cauterize the wounds with the story of the dog's hard life," Wayne had said of poor little unpetted—and because unpetted, unpettable—Pet.
Was Watts the real philosopher when he said "things was as they was"?
She was bewildered. She was in a country where she could not find her way. She needed a guide. Her throat grew tight, her eyes hot, at thought of how badly she needed her guide.
Then, perhaps in self-defense, she saw her friend Captain Prescott, not as a victim of the violation of canons, but as a violator of them himself. She turned from Ann's past to his.
"Harry," she asked, in rather metallic voice, "how about that affair of yours down in Cuba?"
He flushed with surprise and resentment. "I must say, Katie," he said stiffly, "I don't see what it has to do with this."
"Why, I should think it might have something to do with it. Isn't there a popular notion that our pasts have something to do with our futures?"
"It's all over," he said shortly.
"Then you would say, Harry, that when things are over they're over. That they needn't tie up the future."
"Certainly not," said he, making it clear that he wanted that phase of the conversation "over."
"It's my own theory," said Katie. "But I didn't know whether or not it was yours. Now if I had had a past, and it was, as you say yours is, all over, I shouldn't think it was any man's business to go poking around in it."
"That," he said, "is a different matter."
"What's a different matter?" she asked aggressively.
"A woman's past. That would be a man's business."
"Though a man's past is not a woman's business?"
"Oh, we certainly needn't argue that old nonsense. You're too much the girl of the world to take any such absurd position, Katie."
"Of course, being what you call a 'girl of the world' it's absurd I should question the man's point of view, but I can't quite get the logic of it. You wouldn't marry a woman with a past, and yet the woman who marries you is marrying a man with one."
"I've lived a man's life," he said. And he said it with a certain pride.
"And perhaps she's lived a woman's life," Katie was thinking. Only the woman was not entitled to the pride. For her it led toward self-destruction rather than self-approval.
"It's this way, Katie," he explained to her. "This is the difference. A woman's past doesn't stay in the past. It marks her. Why I can tell a woman with a past every time," he concluded confidently.
Katie sat there smiling at him. The smile puzzled him.
"Now look here, Katie, surely you—a girl of the world—the good sort—aren't going to be so melodramatic as to dig up a 'past' for me, are you?"
"No," said Katie, "I don't want to be melodramatic. I'll try to dig up no pasts."
His talk ran on, and her thoughts. It seemed so cruel a thing that Ann's past—whatever it might be, and surely nothing short of a "past" could make a girl want to kill herself—should rise up and damn her now. To him she was a dear lovely girl—the sort of a girl a man would want to marry. Very well then, intrinsically, she was that. Why not let people be what they were? Why not let them be themselves, instead of what one thought they would be from what one knew of their lives? It was so easy to see marks when one knew of things which one's philosophy held would leave marks. It seemed a fairer and a saner thing to let human beings be what their experiences had actually made them rather than what one thought those experiences would make them.
Captain Prescott had blighted a Cuban woman's life—for his own pleasure and vanity. With Ann it may have been the press of necessity, or it may have been—the call of life. Either one, being driven by life, or drawn to it, seemed less ignominious than trifling with life.
Why would it be so much worse for Captain Prescott to marry Ann than it would be for Ann to marry Captain Prescott?
The man who mended the boats would back her up in that!
Through her somber perplexity there suddenly darted the sportive idea of getting Ann in the army! The audacious little imp of an idea peeped around corners in Katie's consciousness and tried to coquet with her. Banished, it came scampering back to whisper that Ann would not bring the army its first "past"—either masculine or feminine. Only in the army they managed things in such wise that there was no need of committing suicide. Ann had been a bad manager.
But at that moment they were joined by Captain Prescott's mother and he retired for a solitary smoke.