In temporary relaxation from the stress of that mood she was glad to see her friend Major Darrett.
He did not suggest the woe of the world. Because the big new things had become—for the moment, at least—too much for her, there was rest in the shelter of the small familiar things.
So much of the unknown had been beating against her that she was glad for a little laughing respite in the known.
He stood for a world she knew how to deal with. In that he seemed to offer shelter; not that he would be able to do it for long.
He always roused a particular imp in Katie which wanted to be flirtatious. She found now, with a certain relief, that the grave things of life had not exterminated that imp. She would scarcely have felt acquainted with herself had it perished.
And because she was so pleased to find it alive she let it grow very live indeed.
Ann and Worth had been gone for five days. Ann had seemed to like the idea of going. She said she would be glad to be alone for a time and "rest up," as she vaguely put it. Katie told her that when she came back they would make some plans; and she told her she was not to worry about things; that everything was going to be all right.
Ann received it with childlike trust. She seemed to think that it was all in Katie's hands, to accept with a child's literalness that Katie would not let the old things come back, that she would "shut the door in their face."
Other things were in Katie's hands that day: preparations for a big dinner they were giving that night.
It was for some cavalry people who were stopping there. And in addition to the cavalry officers and their wives there was a staff officer from Washington who was valuable to Wayne just then. Katie was anxious that the dinner be a success. She was glad Major Darrett was there. He went a long way toward assuring its success.
And Zelda Fraser was with the party. Katie had seen her for a moment that morning, and would see her again at night. She was stopping with Caroline Osborne, whom she had known at school.
Zelda did not suggest the woe of the world. Neither did she suggest the dreams of the world.
It was early in the afternoon and the Major and Katie were having a conference. He was acquainted with the palate of the visiting staff officer, and was assuring Katie that she was on the way to his good graces.
They had gone into the library, where Katie was arranging flowers. He offered a suggestion there, too. He had an intuitive knowledge of such things, seemed to be guided by inner promptings as to which bowl should hold the lavender sweet peas and which the pink ones.
Though Katie disputed his judgment, glad to be on ground where she could dispute with assurance. They argued it hotly, as if sweet peas were the most vital things in the world. It was good to be venting all one's feeling on things so tangible and knowable as sweet peas.
Her dinner safe in the hands of experts, Katie made herself comfortable and told her friend the Major that she wished now to be put in a brilliant mood. That a brilliant mood was the one thing the skilled laborers in possession of her house could not furnish.
He gallantly defied any laborer in the world to be so skilled as to get
Katie out of a brilliant mood.
She told him that was silly, that she had grown very stupid.
He challenged her to prove it.
Katie felt very much at home with him; not merely at home with him the individual, but comfortably at home with the things he represented. It gave her a nice homelike feeling to be flirting with him.
And flirting with him herself, she grew interested in all those others who had flirted with him—she knew they were legion. She seemed to see them off there in the background—a lovely group of spoiled darlings. She did not suppose many of them were much the worse for having flirted with Major Darrett. Suddenly she laughed and told him she regarded him as one of the great educators of the age. He wanted to know in what way he was a great educator. Katie would not tell him. There ensued a gay discussion from which she emerged feeling as if she had had a cocktail.
And looking that way; looking, at least so he seemed to think, from the manner in which he leaned forward regarding her—most attractive, her cheeks so pink, her eyes dancing a little dance of defiance at him, and on her lips a mocking little smile, more sophisticated than any smile he had ever seen before on Katie's lips. "Katie of the laughing eyes"—he had once called her. She was leaning back lazily, a suggestion of insolence in her assurance. As she leaned back that way he marked the lines of her figure as he had never marked them before. He had previously thought of Katie as a good build for golf. Now that did not seem to express the whole of it—and Katie seemed to know it would not express the whole of it. And in summarizing Katie as having a good build for golf he had not properly appraised Katie's foot. It was thrust out now from her very short skirt as if Katie were quite willing he should know it for a lovely foot. And her arm, which was hanging down from the side of the chair, seemed conscious of being something more than a good arm for golf.
She looked so like a child, and yet so lurkingly like a woman. It gave him a new sense of Katie. It blew the warm breath of life over an idea he had had when he came there.
He had just come from Zelda Fraser, having had luncheon at the Osbornes'. He had once thought Zelda stimulating. Now she did not seem at all stimulating in comparison with Katie. She was too obvious. That lurking something in Katie's eyes, that mysterious smile she had, made Katie seem subtle.
If this were to be added to all her other charms—
Katie had always seemed delightfully daring in an innocent sort of way. It seemed now she might be capable of being subtle in a sophisticated way. He had always thought of Katie as romping. A distinguished and quite individual form of romping. She even had a romping imagination. He loved her for her merriness, for her open sunniness. That had been an impersonal love, not very different from the way he might have loved a sister. In fact he had more than once wished Katie were his little sister instead of Wayne's.
He did not wish that now.
She became too fascinating and too desirable in her mysterious new complexity. There was zest in discovering Katie after he had known her so long.
And her eyes and her smile seemed jeering at him for having been such a long while in discovering her.
He wanted to kiss her. That mocking little smile seemed daring him to kiss her. And yet he did not dare to. It seemed part of Katie's lovely new complexity that she could invite and forbid at one and the same time.
Now Zelda could not have done more than the inviting—and so many could invite.
He rose and stood near her. "Katie, you don't mean to marry
Prescott, do you?"
She clapped her hands above her head and laughed like a child immensely tickled about something.
He laughed, too, and then asked to be informed what he was laughing at.
"Oh, you're just laughing because I am," laughed Katie.
"Then may I ask, mysterious one, what you're laughing at?"
"Oh I'm laughing at a tumble I once took. 'Twas such a tumble."
"I'd like to tumble to the tumble."
"You would like it. You'd love it."
"I hadn't thought," said the Major, "that when I asked if you meant to marry Prescott I was classifying with the great humorists of all time."
"And I hadn't thought," she returned, "that when I thought Prescott meant to marry me I was classifying with the great tumblers of all time!"
Suddenly she stopped laughing. "No, I don't mean to marry Harry, and I can further state with authority that Harry doesn't mean to marry me."
The laughter went from even her eyes—thinking, perhaps, of whom Harry did mean to marry.
But she was not going to let herself become grave. If she grew quiet she would know again about the woe of the world—surging right underneath. The only way not to know it was underneath was to keep merrily dancing away in one's place on top of it. She made a curious little gesture of flicking something from her hand and whistled a romping little tune.
He stood there surveying her. "It wouldn't do at all for you to marry Prescott, Katie. He's a likeable enough fellow, but with it all something of a duffer."
"Just what kind of man," asked Katie demurely, "would you say I had better marry?"
He sat down in a chair nearer her. "Just what kind of man would you like to marry?"
"How do you know," she asked, still demurely, "that I would like to marry any?"
"Oh you must have a guide, Katie. You must be guided through this wicked world."
She bit her lip and turned away when he told her she must have a guide.
But she turned back, and seriously. "Is it a wicked world?"
With that he ventured to pat the hand now lying on the arm of the chair so near him. "Well you'll never know it, if it is. We'll keep it all from you, Katie. You're safe."
Katie pulled her hand away petulantly. "If there's anything I don't want to be," she said, "it's safe."
That seemed to amuse him. "I only meant," he laughed, "safe from the great outer world."
"Tell me," said Katie, "what's in the great outer world?"
He sat there smiling at her as one would smile at a dear inquisitive child.
"Have you made many excursions into the great outer world?" she asked boldly.
"Oh yes," he replied lightly, "I've been something of an explorer. All men, you know, Katie, are born explorers. Though for the most part I must say I find our own little world the more attractive."
Then he surprised her. "Katie, would you think a man a brute to propose to a girl on the day she was giving an important dinner?"
But right there she pulled herself in. "No more tumbles!" thought Katie.
"It would seem rather inconsiderate, wouldn't it? Such a man wouldn't seem to have a true sense of values."
"Well, dinner or no dinner, the man I have in mind has a true sense of values. He has a true sense of values because he knows Katherine Wayneworth Jones for the most desirable thing in all the world."
It did surprise her, and the surprise grew. None of them had thought of
Major Darrett as what they called a marrying man.
And on the heels of the surprise came a certain sense of triumph. Katie knew that any of the girls in what he called their little world would be looking upon it as a moment of triumph, and there was triumph in gaining what others would regard as triumph.
"How old are you, Katie?" he asked.
She told him.
"Twenty-five. And I'm forty-one. Is that prohibitive?"
She looked at him, thinking how lightly the years had touched him—how lightly, in all probability, they would touch him. He had distinctly the military bearing. He would have that same bearing at sixty. And that same charm. He was one to whom experience gave the gift of charm more insidiously than youth could give it.
Life would be more possible with him than with any man she knew within the enclosure. If one were to go dancing and smiling and flirting through the world Major Darrett would be the best possible man to go with.
As she looked at him, smiling at her half tenderly and half humorously, life with Major Darrett presented itself as such an attractive thing that there was almost pain in the thought of not being able to take it.
For deep within her she never questioned not being able to take it. But for the moment—
"You see, Katie," he was saying, "I would be the best possible one for you to be married to, because you could go right on having flirtations. Of course I needn't tell you, Katie dear, that you're a flirt. The trouble with your marrying most fellows would be that they wouldn't like it."
"And of course," she replied, "I would be a good one for you to marry because having my own flirtations I wouldn't be in a position to be critical about yours."
He laughed quite frankly.
Katie leaned back and sat there smiling at him, that new baffling smile he found so alluring.
"But do you know, Katie, I think, for a long time, anyway, we could keep busy flirting with each other."
"And we would keep all the busier," she said, "knowing that the minute we stopped flirting with each other one of us would get busy flirting with somebody else."
He laughed delightedly. "Katie, where did you learn it was very fetching to say outrageous things so demurely?"
"Tell me," said Katie, more seriously, "why do you want to marry?"
"Until about an hour ago I wanted to marry—oh for the most bromidic of reasons. Just because, in the natural course of events, it seemed the next thing for me to do. I'll even be quite frank and confess I had thought of you in that bromidic version of it. Had thought of it as 'eminently suitable'—also, eminently desirable. We'd like to do the same things. We'd get on—be good fellows together. But now I want to marry—and I want to marry you—because I think you're quite the most fascinating thing in all the world!"
Lightly and yet seriously he spoke of things—of his own prospects. She knew how good they were. Of where and how they would probably live;—a pleasant picture it was he could draw. It would mean life along the sunny paths. And very sunny indeed it seemed they would be—if possible at all. Certainly one would never have to explain any of one's jokes to Major Darrett.
For just a moment she let herself drift into it. And knowing she was drifting, and not knowing it was for just the moment, he rose and bent over her chair.
"Katie," he whispered, and there was passion in his voice, "I think I can make you fall in love with me."
The little imp in Katie took possession. And something deeper than the little imp stirred vaguely at sound of that thing in his voice. She raised her face so that it was turned up to him. "You think you could? Now I wonder."
"Oh you wonder, do you—you exasperating little wretch! Well just give me a chance—"
But suddenly he was standing at attention, his face colorless. Katie jumped up guiltily, and there leaning against the door—all huddled down and terrible looking—was Ann.
"Why, Katie," she whispered thickly—"Katie! But you told me—you promised me—that you would shut the door in his face."