Kendall awoke refreshed, but with those sensations which a man experiences after an exceedingly circumstantial and vivid dream. The reality of last night’s events had vanished, to be remembered only as something lived through in that subconscious land of dreams. The morning was bright, cheerful, and he breakfasted with enthusiasm. Directly afterward Jimmy was summoned to brigade headquarters, and Kendall, having finished his work at that point, set out with his chauffeur to walk back to Domptin.
On the way they paused on the road to watch the shelling out of a corner of the woods by a German battery. The high-explosive shells fell with beautiful precision and at regular intervals of about a minute. The scream of the shells could be heard during an interval in which one could count up to six slowly, and then would come the explosion. By counting so and keeping his eyes on that wooded angle Kendall could watch the work of the shells with exact timing of his vision. Somehow the processes of the explosion reminded him of an enormously powerful man heaving upward a weight with his shoulders. First would come a small surge of smoke, as if the giant were testing his load, and then an uprush of black smoke and debris in geyser form, regular until it had spent its force, then breaking into irregular billows at the top and dissipating through the air…. Shell after shell dropped precisely, neatly, not varying in their placing by more than a couple of score of feet…. About the corner was no sign of life, no hurrying figures stumbling headlong away from the peril, and Kendall wondered if life were present there, if life had been there, or if it had wholly ceased to exist.
They walked on down the road to their car and returned to Montreuil, where Kendall had business with the Assistant Provost Marshal, who occupied a house on the edge of town, midway down the winding hill. As Ken’s car drew up at the house a gray camion stopped at an adjoining cottage, and Kendall saw a girl leap briskly down from the seat and run up the bank. She wore the uniform of the Y. M. C. A…. He recognized Maude Knox.
His first impulse was to hasten to her, for he was as much delighted as astonished to see her in such a place, but something stopped him—call it curiosity. He was conscious of wanting to see how she acted, what she was doing, how she did it…. An American girl alone in a French hamlet deserted by its civil population! A girl alone with an army! Here was indeed a situation; here was romance; here was something to excite the imagination! Kendall leaned forward eagerly and watched.
She entered the open door of the little cottage and looked within; then she turned about in the most matter-of-fact way and called something to the man who drove the truck. He dismounted and began unloading cases and crates—and a cook-stove. These he carried up the bank and placed in the house. Maude shook hands with the man; he climbed on his camion again and drove away. She was alone!… She, an American girl, had been set down casually in a matter-of-course manner here within range of hostile guns, and abandoned to her own devices! She seemed not in the least excited or disturbed. It was amazing. This sort of thing might have been happening to her every day or so for years, and yet Kendall knew she had never, probably, spent a night alone in a house before in her life…. And here she was more than alone in a house. There was not another woman within miles…. He saw her attempting to fasten a sign to the wall beside the door, and, failing, turn and look about her for the first time…. Seventy-fives were being discharged every few minutes from points not a quarter of a mile away from her. He saw that she was gazing toward the sound…. He shook his head, for the thing was beyond his comprehension. Did American girls do this sort of thing? Was this expected of them? Were they all capable of such adaptations of themselves, or was Maude Knox a remarkable exception? He wondered….
There was nothing more to be seen. Maude had gone inside, and Kendall stepped from his car and walked up to her door, on whose threshold he paused, not speaking, and peered inside. She was standing in the middle of a rubbish-littered room, looking about her, not with bewilderment or with uncertainty, but calculatingly. She seemed the embodiment of capability…. She nodded her head as much as to say, “This will do nicely,” and reached for a broom that was among the boxes that had accompanied her.
“Good morning,” said Kendall.
She turned and looked at him, smiling even before she recognized him, and then exclaimed, “Kendall Ware, of all people!”
“Of all people, indeed! How about yourself? I presume you are a natural and normal part of the scenery.”
She nodded. “Of course. This is what I came to France to do.”
“To—to be set down on a pile of filth like this”—his arm swept the room—“alone—in the middle of an army—within a couple of miles of No Man’s Land?”
“Of course…. Why not?”
She was actually surprised; there was no pretense about it. “Of what?” she asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll bet you never slept alone in a house before in your life.”
“You wouldn’t do it at home.”
“I suppose not.”
He waggled his head. “You’d have been afraid to stay alone in a house in a civilized town…. Now, wouldn’t you?”
“I—I guess I would. Yes, I would.”
“But here—with nothing to protect you, without even a decent lock—and not a woman within half a dozen kilometers!… It isn’t right. They hadn’t any business sending you to such a place.”
“Rubbish!… I’m safer than I would be in my own home with a policeman standing in front of the door. Why, I’ve never even thought of being nervous! Really…. I suppose it is queer.” She stopped a moment to speculate on its queerness. “If I were back home and somebody should describe this to me I couldn’t understand any girl doing it…. But I’m here—and it’s all different…. I never felt so—so safe.”
“But an army—even our army—is made up of all sorts of men.”
She laughed with sincerity. “Fiddlesticks!… What do you suppose would happen to a man who offended me? Why, Kendall”—it was the first time she had used his given name, but it appeared perfectly natural—“I’ve got a whole division to look after me.”
It was true. He knew it was true. These American boys—lonely for a familiar American face, hungry for the sound of the voice and laughter of an American woman—would idolize her. They would be her slaves. Safe?… There never had been such safety as was hers—and yet he was troubled. It was so unconventional—so off the beaten track of the ordinary movement of life. He did not quite like it…. That was his mother speaking in him. His mother would have declared such conduct to be unwomanly, to be not nice, and she would have condemned Maude Knox unheard…. Because Maude Knox was doing a thing she had never done and had never seen done by a respectable member of her sex!… Kendall realized this to be absurd.
“We’re surely in a different world,” he said, tritely.
“The Epworth Sewing Circle wouldn’t approve,” she said, with a twinkle, “but the Epworth Sewing Circle doesn’t count over here, does it?… I wonder if it will ever count again anywhere—for us who have been here?”
Kendall wondered, too. What was going to become of the home conventions when these young women, who had adventured to France to aid as they found opportunity in the winning of the war, got home? What ideas would they bring with them and disseminate? What would happen to America?… America could never be the same, for, not only would these thousands of girls return, having seen the world with opened eyes—and lived undreamable lives—but two millions of young men would be going home, too…. Each one of them would take something of France and of the war to his home—and what would come of it?…
“You’re—you’re bully!” he said, with sudden conviction. “By Jove! you’re bully!”
“What are you here for?… What do you expect to do?”
“Talk, mostly,” she said, merrily. “I guess that’s what I’m wanted for more than anything else—to let the boys talk to me. Incidentally I’ll make hot chocolate and sell cigarettes and safety razors and jam and cookies…. I’ll just be here.”
“Just be here,” he repeated after her. “Just be here….” And in a flash as of lightning he saw what her just being here would mean to those men…. He saw what a lofty height they would set her upon, and how they would worship her beauty, and how they would delight in her every word…. It would be good for them, good for them as soldiers and good for them as men!… What a war it was that produced this!…
“Look!” she said, and laughed aloud.
Kendall turned. The doorway was closed by a rapidly augmenting crowd of boys in khaki, curious, eager, delighted, grinning.
“How do you do?” Maude said, with perfect calm. She walked toward them and extended her hand, which boy after boy seized bashfully. “I’m Miss Knox—and if you ever expect to get any hot chocolate, somebody’s got to put up the stove. It isn’t much of a stove.”
“Say, miss,” blurted out a sergeant, “if you’ll—er—git out of here a spell we’ll fix things up…. Say, was you calc’latin’ on stayin’?”
“I’m a permanent improvement,” she said.
From that instant Kendall had no doubts, conjured up no violated proprieties. Maude Knox was right to be there; there was no other spot in the world where it was so right for her to be….
“I’ll clear out,” she said, and, pausing as she passed through the door, “I could use some sort of a counter….”
“You bet, miss.”
“There,” said Maude to Kendall, presently.
“I see,” he said, soberly. “I’m seeing lots of things.”
“That weren’t visible in Detroit,” she added for him. Then, after a pause, “And so am I…. There’s something in the air—here—in Paris—wherever one goes in this country. It gets you…. I could do things. Yes, I could…. You have a feeling that nothing you do as an individual counts—nothing matters. Everything we’ve ever been used to seems so far away and insignificant. Don’t you feel that way?”
“As if you could be very good or very, very bad—and it wouldn’t make a cent’s worth of difference to anybody?”
“Other girls are feeling it. I think they are all feeling it. There are plenty of signs…. C’est la guerre. I suppose that’s it…. No, it can’t be explained by a phrase of the streets; it’s deeper than that…. With one half of the world trying to slaughter the other half…. Every little while I have a feeling that right and wrong have grown to be too big to apply to individuals—they’re for nations. Does that express what I mean? And then I’ve thought more than once that this is the end of the world—the end of the old world and the starting-place of a new one…. Temporarily we’re without a set of rules because the old ones won’t do any more, and we’ve got to build up an altogether new code.”
“I’ve felt something like that, but I didn’t have a philosopher for a father, so I didn’t know just what I was feeling or how to say it.”
“We’re being a sort of spiritual Bolsheviki, I suppose, going through a transition period of confusion and lawlessness and wild thinking…. But, just as something better than the old Russian Empire with its czars and grand dukes and Siberias and its—its Rasputins—is bound to follow Bolsheviki-ism, so something better than the narrowness of the sewing-circles and the Pilgrims and the viciousness of blindly accepted conventions and codes…. This has turned into something bigger than a World War—it is turning into a Greater Reformation…. Not the reformation of a religion, but a reformation in the basic thought of the world—surely of America….”
“Whew!” exclaimed Kendall. “I follow you, I guess, but my feet are off the bottom … and I can’t swim.”
“You can think, can’t you?” she said, a trifle tartly.
“I guess I feel more than I think,” he said.
“We all do…. We have to feel in order to think, and we have to feel in order to understand. Cold logic isn’t worth a snap of the fingers—really…. You’ve been getting something out of Paris, haven’t you? Feeling something? I think you get it there more than any place else…. I love Paris.”
“My mother wouldn’t love it,” he said, gravely.
“And you’re like her—sometimes—aren’t you?… But aren’t you growing more tolerant—more able to see the other person’s point of view?”
“I—hang it all!—I can’t get away from the notion that good is good and bad is bad.”
She shook her head. “But you are beginning to see that America hasn’t the right to legislate for the world, and to define what is good and what is evil…. I know you are…. Now don’t be shocked, please. I’m American, of course, and the American code is for me—until it is altered. Whatever I may think about it, still it is the code and accepted by the majority. That binds me to a degree…. But I can still believe we are narrow and prudish…. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that eating pork may be a sin to an orthodox Jew. It is a sin because he believes it is a sin. It is no sin for you because you think it is nonsense…. When you get down to essentials, the thing that is a sin is doing a thing you think to be a sin. It isn’t the thing, but the thinking….”
“I suppose that’s it.”
“Of course it is…. And that’s enough of this sort of talk, isn’t it? I don’t always talk this way, really. I’m quite pleasant and frivolous most of the time…. You’re not to be stationed here by any chance?”
“No such luck.”
She laughed. “I wouldn’t have time to bother with you, anyhow, if you were meaning that as a compliment…. I’ve got at least a regiment of young men, and I sha’n’t be partial…. Besides, there’s that pretty little French girl…. I liked her looks…. Tell the truth, you’d be heartbroken if you were sent away from Paris and her.”
Andree!… He had scarcely remembered her existence for twenty-four hours. And only the night before last he had been telling her that he loved her, and kissing her good-by! He felt ashamed of himself. He felt ashamed because he felt that he was not being true to the love he professed for her—in his thoughts and in the pleasure which he found in the presence of Maude Knox…. He was in love with Andree, but—confound it all!—was it possible he could be falling in love with Maude Knox, too? He had heard that people and books asserted a man could be in love with two women at once…. If this were so, he said to himself, it would create a devilish unpleasant situation … and a situation not without an element to cause laughter. If a man loved two girls, he would have to choose one of them. In which case he would be, at the same instant, in a state of bliss because he had won a sweetheart and in a state of heartbreak because he had been thwarted in love!…
“I wish you could know Andree,” he said. “She—she’s educating me, I guess. I don’t understand her, of course. She is constantly startling me. I never knew anybody who in the least resembled her.”
“Of course not…. She’s French. She’s a war-time Parisienne.”
“But she’s good,” said Kendall, as if Maude had brought some charge against Andree.
“Why not?” Maude smiled a trifle.
“You mustn’t think—” he began.
“I’m thinking nothing. It’s none of my business.” She paused. “Frankly, I don’t care…. Now don’t misunderstand that. I like you, Kendall. I’m interested in you. There was a time when, if I suspected of a man what you seem to think I suspect of you, I would have cut him in a hurry…. And the girl—I would have been horrified…. But now—I don’t quite understand myself—I wouldn’t in the least object to knowing your Andree.”
“But I tell you—”
“Of course you do—and I don’t believe you. So there!”
Kendall was embarrassed and a trifle angry. “I don’t see why you should suspect anything—just because Andree is French!”
“And because you are American? And because lots of things?” She shrugged her shoulders.
“Would you marry a man you knew had been having an—an affair with a girl like Andree?”
“It would depend. There are affairs and affairs…. Somehow I don’t think I should marry a man who had an affair with an American woman, one of these squalid, scandalous things we hear about in New York or Detroit…. But in war conditions—with a girl like Andree, as you say, why, if I loved the man of course I would marry him…. I think I would—if I loved him.”
“Where is the difference?”
“I don’t know…. It gets back to a sin being a sin because you think it is. It’s a feeling. I’ve seen these women in France, women I knew were having affairs, and they were sweet and modest—and natural. An American woman can’t seem to have an affair and still be sweet and modest—and natural. She feels she is doing something wicked and degrading, and consequently is degraded. She is being deliberately bad…. Don’t you see?”
“I—I think so…. There’s something. I have the same notion about it as you, but I couldn’t explain it. I guess you’re right…. Do you think a man can be in love with two girls at once?” He asked the question suddenly.
She laughed joyously. “Now, you aren’t going to tell me you are in love with me, too?… Please don’t. I suppose a lot of these boys will fancy they’re in love with me just because I happen to be moderately neat and clean and good-looking and because I’m out here alone like this…. I’ll stand to them for their sweethearts back home, and all that, but they won’t be in love with me in the least—and neither are you.”
This frankness was truly American, modern American. Kendall could not imagine Andree saying or thinking such things; he could not imagine his mother saying or thinking such things. And why? To Andree love was love—the great business of life. Everything else was subordinate to it. To his mother love was—was just a little bit off color, because there was sex in it. His mother could love her son frankly, but she could not love her husband frankly nor talk with frankness about it…. Original sin clung to love in her mind. It was the thing that had cast man out of Paradise, and while one married and bore children, and marital relations were necessary, nevertheless there was something squalid and indecent about them. Andree saw nothing indecent in sex, as she saw nothing indecent in eating her dinner…. Maude Knox was more like Andree than like his mother, but even there there was a vast difference. There was the difference of race and of racial philosophy.
Maude placed her hand on Kendall’s arm. “Be nice to that little girl,” she said. “Don’t hurt her…. Be fair.”
“What do you mean?… Do you mean I should marry her?”
She hesitated. “I don’t know…. Marriage!…”
Her own inherited prejudices were lifting their heads now. Marriage!… Marriage with a French girl with whom one was having relations! That was different. She hesitated and did not give him a frank answer.
“Well?” he said.
“You mustn’t ask me…. I can’t answer that. It is a thing you’ll have to decide.”
“I guess you have answered,” he said, gloomily.
“Perhaps—and perhaps I’m ashamed of myself for answering so…. But I was born in America and brought up in a surrounding of sewing-circles.”
There was a pause. Then he said, almost as if to himself, “You’re the sort of girl I’d like to be in love with.”
“That’s a very nice thing to say—but you’re not.”
“I don’t know…. I’m not sure. I could be very easily if I were to see much of you.”
He was really depressed, worried, and she perceived it with genuine sympathy. She saw that this young man was facing a problem whose correct solution would be vital to his happiness and to his future peace of mind. She was able to realize that he was approaching one of those climaxes of the soul which are infinitely more trying and infinitely more potent to modify than could any climax in which the physical predominated. She fancied she knew Kendall rather well and understood him. She fancied he was not complex, but rather simple and straightforward—just a young man—but she was wrong. There were such elements of complexity in him as made for the sharpest of suffering, which would have defied the analysis of the most expert psychologist. She did not perceive the overwhelming importance of his inheritances from mother and father, those beliefs and those sensations and those reactions which were almost a physical part of him as his arms and legs were a physical part of him. She could not know that his body was in constant use as an arena in which Puritanism and dogmas and blind faiths and intolerances of the unknown were battling with that mild toleration derived from his father, that desire to see good in everything, that sweetness which held fast to its faith in mankind, even when it could not understand what mankind was about…. Nor could she know that Kendall himself stood between these adversaries with a mind better equipped than either to see and to appraise, striving with a great hunger for the right, to be modified by the adversaries only as it was right to be modified by them. Youth and the desires of youth for life and pleasure and the knowledge that comes by experiencing was also there with its immature carelessness of consequences…. There was no simplicity here, rather such a complexity as seemed destined to defy solution and to make a decent peace of the soul a thing possible to attain….
A young captain ran down the bank to meet them. “You are Miss Knox?” he asked, cordially.
“I’m Captain Morris, A.P.M. here—and I’m mighty glad to see you. You don’t mean you’re really going to stay?”
“No!… By Jove!… Say!…” He was inarticulate, but there was no doubting of his delight.
“Captain Ware—Captain Morris,” said Maude, and the two young men shook hands.
“I’ve got some business with you,” Kendall said, “as soon as we can get Miss Ware settled.”
“What do you want? What do you need?…” This to Maude: “I’ll give you details of men till the cows come home. Just ask for it, and—if it’s in this sector—we’ll get it for you…. By Jove!… Think of it! Going to stay!… Oh, say!”
Maude laughed. “You’ll have me thinking I’m doing something unusual in a minute.”
“Unusual! Miss Knox, if you knew what it will mean to these boys to have an American girl here—just to know she’s around! It’s wonderful, that’s what it is! Do you realize that some of the men haven’t seen an American woman in a year—haven’t talked to a woman?… By Jove!…” Every time he thought about it he became boyishly inarticulate again.
“They’re fixing up my canteen for me,” she said.
“Good! I’ll run up and see they do it right.”
“I—I wouldn’t, if I were you,” said Maude, gently. “They seem to like it—to want to do it themselves. They shooed me away. Don’t you think it would be better to let them go ahead by themselves—if it pleases them?”
Kendall was conscious of a pride in her, in her understanding and her beautiful tact. So was Captain Morris, who could only stare at her unbelievingly and utter, “By Jove!…”
In half an hour they three walked back to the canteen.
“Here she comes!” yelled a boy in the door, and a sergeant with a smudge on his nose, his sleeves rolled up, and a hammer in his hand, poked his nose out of the door.
“Shoo her off ag’in,” he said, in a rumble that was distinctly audible, though not intended for Maude’s ears. “We hain’t done yet.”
Maude turned away with a laugh. “I guess we’d better walk some more. If you men are busy I can look after myself.”
“Busy!…” exclaimed Captain Morris. “By Jove!” And they all laughed, even the captain, who had a faint perception of his own state of mind.
In another half-hour they returned again to the little cottage. This time a dozen boys were standing about with a great pretense of carelessness, but with an embarrassed eagerness which set her eyes to twinkling.
“May I go in now?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am…. You bet!”
They crowded in after her to watch her every movement and expression and to assure themselves that they had pleased her. There was a serviceable counter. Behind it were rough shelves for her wares. The stove was set up, and such utensils as she possessed hung precisely on nails. There was a comfortable chair, rather dilapidated, but foraged at some expense of trouble…. And the cleanliness of the place was nothing short of amazing. It had been swept and dusted and scoured until not a trace of its former filth remained.
“Oh, boys,” said Maude, after a moment’s silence, “isn’t it fine!… Haven’t you made a nice place of it! I wouldn’t have thought it was possible…. And the counter and shelving!… I don’t know how to thank you.”
The soldiers were in a dreadful state of embarrassment, blushing and giggling and nudging one another like schoolboys detected in a prank. They seemed to have a feeling that something ought to be said, for they kept jostling and pushing the sergeant, who growled back at them, savagely. “Lemme be, doggone you!” Maude heard him mutter. But they pushed him out into consciousness. “Go on, Hank…. Open up. Git it off your chest,” he was abjured.
Hank scowled terribly at Maude, opened his mouth and closed it again, hunched his broad shoulders and felt of his prominent Adam’s apple. “Aw—” he began, and then, “Aw—hell!…” With which well-chosen remark he burst through his comrades and fled headlong.
Maude again did the one tactful thing, the one thing that, in those circumstances, not only saved the face of the vanished Hank, but raised her to an elevation in the minds of the soldiers from which she would never descend…. She simply sat down on that scoured floor and laughed and laughed until her cheeks were wet with tears of mirth. So infectious was her laugh that there was not a man but laughed with her.
“By Jove!…” exclaimed Captain Morris. “She’s a wonder.”
“She is,” said Kendall, soberly.
Maude looked up at them. “You officers go away,” she said, severely. “I’m going to be very busy…. No, you boys needn’t go—just the officers….”
“I may come back to say good-by?” Kendall asked. “I’ll be leaving in an hour.”
When Kendall finished his business with the Assistant Provost Marshal he returned to the canteen.
“I’m going,” he said from the door.
Maude issued from behind her counter and made her way through a knot of soldiers who had crowded about it.
“Good-by,” she said, extending her hand. “It’s been nice to see you.”
“It—it has been wonderful to see you,” he said. “I don’t think I shall ever forget this.” He waved his hand around the room. “It isn’t possible.” He smiled whimsically. “I know I’m dreaming the whole thing. You’re really back in Ohio somewhere, probably playing bridge.”
“Not bridge—I don’t like bridge. Tennis, maybe.”
“And I’m going to wake up in a little while and tell folks what a queer dream I’ve had.”
She pinched herself. “See, I’m awake—and you don’t know how glad I am that I am awake—that I am here, seeing this, being a part of this….”
“But it isn’t done, you know. There’s nothing in the rules to cover it…. No, Miss Knox, I’m dreaming it—and I’m glad I am dreaming it. If it were real—” His face grew serious.
“Perhaps,” she said, “this is the first time you’ve ever seen anything real … since you came to France. That is it…. France is real, the war is real, Andree is real, I am real…. The only things that aren’t real are the habits and thoughts we were busy with sixty days ago…. Sixty days!…”
“Good-by—and don’t forget me.”
“I sha’n’t do that. I like you…. Good-by.”
Kendall leaned far back in his car and smoked and found his thoughts disturbing company. He was not used to facing questions of big importance, but he saw now that for weeks he had been drifting toward a day when he would have to meet and reply to the first soul-modifying question that had ever been propounded to him…. The thing was inevitable. He was moving toward facts that could not be brushed aside…. Strangely enough, though he was heavy with apprehension, nevertheless there was a certain exultation…. This was living—living not in a circumscribed area, but in the unbounded world. This was life—this was experience—something big, worthy of the consideration of a man. There were happiness and misery in it…. He was beginning to see that he could not win through with happiness intact; it was his hope to win through with happiness preponderant…. The day he landed in France he had been a boy; less than two months had passed—and he had become a man…. France had done that for him.