Mrs. Prescott made vivid and compelling those days, those things, which Katie had a little while before had the fancy of so easily slipping away from. She made them things which wove themselves around one, or rather, things of which one seemed an organic part, from which one could no more pull away than the tree's branch could pull away from the tree's trunk.
In her presence Katie was claimed by those things out of which she had grown, claimed so subtly that it seemed a thing outside volition. Mrs. Prescott did not, in any form, say things were as they were; it was only that she breathed it.
How could one combat with words, or in action, that rooted so much deeper than mere words or action?
She was a slight and simple looking lady to be doing anything so large as stemming the tide of a revolutionary impulse. She had never lost the girlishness of her figure—or of her hands. So much had youth left her. Her face was thin and pale, and of the contour vaguely called aristocratic. It was perhaps the iron gray hair rolling back from the pale face held the suggestion of austerity. But that which best expressed her was the poise of her head. She carried it as if she had a right to carry it that way.
It was of small things she talked: the people she had met, people they knew whom Katie knew. It was that net-work of small things she wove around Katie. One might meet a large thing in a large way. But that subtle tissue of the little things!
They talked of Katie's mother, and as they talked it came to Katie that perhaps the most live things of all might be the dead things. Katie's mother had not been unlike Mrs. Prescott, save that to Katie, at least, she seemed softer and sweeter. They had been girls together in Charleston. They had lived on the same street, gone to the same school, come out at the same party, and Katie's mother had met Katie's father when he came to be best man at Mrs. Prescott's wedding. Then they had been stationed together at a frontier post in a time of danger. Wayne had been born at that post. They had been together in times of birth and times of death.
Mrs. Prescott spoke of Worth, and of how happy she knew Katie was to have him with her. She talked of the responsibility it brought Katie, and as they talked it did seem responsibility, and responsibility was another thing which stole subtly up around her, chaining her with intangible—and because intangible, unbreakable—chains.
Mrs. Prescott wanted to know about Wayne. Was he happy, or had the unhappiness of his marriage gone too deep? "Your dear mother grieved so about it, Katie," she said. "She saw how it was going. It hurt her."
"Yes," said Katie, "I know. It made mother very sad."
"I am glad that her death came before the separation."
"Oh, I don't know," said Katie; "I think mother would have been glad."
"She did not believe in divorce; your mother and I, Katie, were the old-fashioned kind of churchwomen."
"Neither did mother believe in unhappiness," said Katie, and drew a longer breath for saying it, for it was as if the things claiming her had crowded up around her throat.
Mrs. Prescott sighed. "We cannot understand those things. It is a strange age in which we are living, Katie. I sometimes think that our only hope is to trust God a little more."
"Or help man a little more," said Katie.
"Perhaps," said Mrs. Prescott gently, "that giving more trust to God would be giving more help to man."
"I'm not sure I get the connecting link," said Katie, more sure of herself now that it had become articulate.
Mrs. Prescott put one of her fine hands over upon Katie's. "Why, child, you can't mean that. That would have hurt your mother."
For the moment Katie did not speak. "If mother had understood just what I meant—understood all about it—I don't believe it would." A second time she was silent, as it struggled. "And if it had"—she spoke it as a thing not to be lightly spoken—"I should be very deeply sorry, but I would not be able to help it."
"Why, child!" murmured her mother's friend. "You're talking strangely. You—the devoted daughter you always were—not able to 'help' hurting your mother?"
Katie's eyes filled. It had become so real: the things stealing around her, the thing in her which must push them back, that it was as if she were hurting her mother, and suffering in the consciousness of bringing suffering. Memory, the tenderest of memories, was another thing weaving itself around her, clinging to her heart, claiming her.
But suddenly she leaned forward. "Would I be able to help being myself?" she asked passionately.
Mrs. Prescott seemed startled. "I fear," she said, perplexed by the tears in Katie's eyes and the stern line of her mouth, "that we are speaking of things I do not understand."
Katie was silent, agreeing with her.
Mrs. Prescott broke the silence. "The world is changing."
And again agreeing, Katie saw that in those changes friends bound together by dear ties might be driven far apart.
"Katie," she asked after a moment, "tell me of my boy and your friend." There was a wistful, almost tremulous note in her voice. "You have sympathy and intelligence, Katie. You must know what a time like this means to a mother."
Katie could not speak. It seemed she could bear little more that night. And she longed for time to think it out, know where she stood, come to some terms with herself.
But forced to face it, she tried to do so lightly. She thought it just a fancy of Harry's. Wasn't he quite given to falling in love with pretty girls?
His mother shook her head. "He cares for her. I know. And do you not see,
Katie, that that makes her about the biggest thing in life to me?"
Katie's heart almost stood still. She was staggered. Through her wretchedness surged a momentary yearning to be one of those people—oh, one of those safe people—who never found the peep-holes in their enclosure!
"Tell me of her, Katie," urged her mother's friend. "Harry seems to think she means much to you. Just what is it she means to you?"
For the moment she was desperate in her wondering how to tell it. And then it happened that from her frenzied wondering what to say of it she sank into the deeper wondering what it was. What it was—what in truth it had been all the time—Ann meant to her.
Why had she done it? What was that thing less fleeting than fancy, more imperative than sympathy, made Ann mean more than things which had all her life meant most?
Watching Katie, Mrs. Prescott wavered between gratification and apprehension: pleased that that light in Katie's eyes, a finer light than she had ever known there before, should come through thought of this girl for whom Harry cared; troubled by the strangeness and the sternness of Katie's face.
It was Katie herself Mrs. Prescott wanted—had always wanted. She had always hoped it would be that way, not only because she loved Katie, but because it seemed so as it should be. She believed that summer would have brought it about had it not been for this other girl—this stranger.
Katie's embarrassment had fallen from her, pushed away by feeling. She was scarcely conscious of Mrs. Prescott.
She was thinking of those paths of wondering, every path leading into other paths—intricate, limitless. She had been asleep. Now she was awake. It was through Ann it had come. Perhaps more had come through Ann than was in Ann, but beneath all else, deeper even than that warm tenderness flowering from Ann's need of her, was that tenderness of the awakened spirit—a grateful song coming through an opening door.
It had so claimed her that she was startled at sound of Mrs. Prescott's voice as she said, with a nervous little laugh: "Why, Katie, you alarm me. You make me feel she must be strange."
"She is strange," said Katie.
"Would you say, Katie," she asked anxiously, "that she is the sort of girl to make my boy a good wife?"
Suddenly the idea of Ann's making Harry Prescott any kind of wife came upon Katie as preposterous. Not because she would be bringing him a "past," but because she would bring gifts he would not know what to do with.
"I don't think of Ann as the making some man a good wife type. I think of Ann," she tried to formulate it, "as having gone upon a quest, as being ever upon a quest."
"A—quest?" faltered Mrs. Prescott. "For what?"
"Life," said Katie, peering off into the darkness.
Mrs. Prescott was manifestly disturbed at the prospect of a daughter-in-law upon a quest. "She sounds—temperamental," she said critically.
"Yes," said Katie, laughing a little grimly, "she's temperamental all right."
They could not say more, as Ann and Wayne were coming toward them across the grass.
And almost immediately afterward the Osborne car again stopped before the house. It was Mr. Osborne himself this time, bringing the Leonards, who had been dining with him. They had stopped to see Mrs. Prescott.
Katie was not sorry, for it turned Mrs. Prescott from Ann. Like the football player who has lost his wind, she wanted a little time counted out.
But she soon found that she was not playing anything so kindly as a game of hard and fast rules.
It seemed at first that Ann's ride had done her good. She seemed to have relaxed and did not give Katie that sense of something smoldering within her. Katie sat beside her, an arm thrown lightly about Ann's shoulders—lightly but guardingly.
Neither of them talked much. Mrs. Prescott and Mrs. Leonard were "visiting"; the men talking of some affairs of Mr. Osborne's. He was commending the army for minding its own business—not "butting in" and trying to ruin business the way some other departments of the Government did. The army seemed in high favor with Mr. Osborne.
Suddenly Mrs. Leonard turned to Katie. She was a large woman, poised by the shallow serenity of self-approval.
"I do feel so sorry for Miss Osborne," she said. "Such a shocking thing has occurred. One of the girls at the candy factory—you know she's trying so hard to help them—has committed suicide!"
Mrs. Prescott uttered an exclamation of horror. Katie patted the shoulder beside her soothingly, understandingly, and as if begging for calm. Even under her light touch she seemed to feel the nerves leap up.
Mr. Osborne turned to them. "Poor Cal, she'd better let things alone.
What's the use? She can't do anything with people like that."
"It's the cause of the suicide that's the disgusting thing," said
"Or rather," amended his wife, "the lack of cause."
"But surely," protested Mrs. Prescott, "no girl would take her life without—what she thought was cause. Surely all human beings hold life and death too sacred for that."
"Oh, do they?" scoffed Mrs. Leonard. "Not that class. I scarcely expect you to believe me—I had a hard time believing it myself—but she says she committed suicide—she left a note for her room-mate—because she was 'tired of not having any fun!'"
The hand upon Ann's shoulder grew fairly eloquent. And Ann seemed trying.
Her hands were tightly clasped in her lap.
"Why, I don't know," said Wayne, "I think that's about one of the best reasons I can think of."
"This is not a jesting matter, Captain Jones," said Mrs. Leonard severely.
"Far from it," said Wayne.
"Think what it means to a girl like Caroline Osborne! A girl who is trying to do something for humanity—to find the people she wants to uplift so trivial—so without souls!"
"It is hard on Cal," agreed Cal's father.
"Though perhaps just a trifle harder," ventured Wayne, "on the girl who did."
"Well, what did she do it for?" he demanded. "Come now, Captain, you can't make out much of a case for her. Mrs. Leonard's word is just right—trivial. She said she was tired of things. Tired—tired—tired of things, she put it. Tired of walking down the same street. Tired of hanging her hat on the same kind of a peg! Now, Captain—if you can put up any defense for a girl who kills herself because she's tired of hanging her hat on a certain kind of peg! Well," he laughed, "if you can, all I've got to say is that you'd better leave the army and go in for criminal law."
"Why didn't she walk down some other street," he resumed, as no one broke the pause. "If it's a matter of life and death—a person might walk down some other street!"
"And I've no doubt," said Captain Prescott, "that if it were known her life, as well as her hat, hung upon it—she might have had a different kind of peg."
"Oh, of course, the secret of it is," pronounced the Colonel, "she was a neurotic."
For the first time Katie spoke. "I think it's such a fine thing we got hold of that word. Since we've known about neurotics we can just throw all the emotion and suffering and tragedy of the world in the one heap and leave it to the scientists. It lets us out so beautifully, doesn't it?"
"Oh, but Katie!" admonished Mrs. Prescott. "Think of it! What is the world coming to? Going forth to meet one's God because one doesn't like the peg for one's hat!"
Katie had a feeling of every nerve in Ann's body leaping up in frenzy. "God?" she laughed wildly. "Don't drag Him into it! Do you think He cares"—turning upon Mrs. Prescott as if she would spring at her—"do you think for a minute He cares—what kind of pegs our hats are on!"