SHE gazed steadily out of the car window at the passing panorama, the high back of her chair protecting her, and shutting her away alone with her contemplations. She knew that one of her fits of depression—of late frequent, they used to be rare—was gradually creeping upon her, had been for days. She had been fighting it for a week (one could not indulge one's feelings when visiting), but now relieved of the necessity of conversation, and safe from all danger of having to give an explanation for her silence and abstraction, she gave herself up with something almost like relief to the despair which had so long been waiting its chance to take possession of her soul.
The futility of her existence, the utter aimlessness and uselessness of it swept over Constance Weatherby to-day in big engulfing waves, blotting out from her vision the placid green fields, and rolling pasturage outside the car window, and robbing her of all joy in anticipation of seeing the family again—Adelaide and Christine and Maude, and possibly Bert and Harry, home from training camp for over Sunday, and Mother, and dear Dad.
Lately a visit to Myrtle Weston always sapped Constance dry of what little courage and good-cheer she possessed when she set forth. It didn't use to be so. When she and Myrtle were young girls together in those after-school days when they both had led aimless lives, simply beating time as it were, while they waited for the vital years between eighteen and twenty-five to divulge for them various secrets and surprises, there hadn't existed a more sympathetic or understanding friend than Myrtle—Myrtle Atkinson she was then—but since she had become Myrtle Weston, and especially since the arrival of her children (there were two of them now) she always managed to make Constance feel how insignificant her interests in life were compared to the importance of bearing and rearing the next generation. In fact she saw little justification for a woman's existence unless she was a wife and mother (and Constance was neither one), or possibly, grudgingly she conceded, unless she contributed something brilliant to the world in the way of art or science. But this was small comfort to Constance. She was the untalented member of her family.
Sometimes Myrtle acted toward her as though she had willfully chosen celibacy. She hadn't chosen it. She had never craved a career like some women, never sought one. She was fond of children. Children were fond of her. It seemed to her a queer sort of accident that there existed no little child anywhere to call her mother.
This year, in view of the war, Myrtle had made Constance's activities in life seem a little more trivial than ever before. Myrtle was to become the mother of a third child in a few months; and though she wanted the child,—would have had it, war or no war,—she felt that she was performing for her country the most patriotic service that a woman could. She made the socks which Constance was knitting, and the two days a week at the Red Cross rooms, at home, which Constance had boasted of a little at first, appear like a child's contribution.
Constance arrived home about eight o'clock that evening. When she got out of the taxicab in front of the big, high, city house (it was brick and white mortar, with a modern basement entrance) and stood waiting to be let in by one of the servants, she was conscious of a vague longing for something more demanding of her in the way of devotion and sacrifice than this big, easy, affluent home of her parents required. Constance knew that, though the welcome offered her inside the house by the members of the family who chanced to be at home, would be hearty and genial, there was no one in there missing her—needing her. A pat from her father possibly, and a "Had a good time?" as she bent and kissed him; an absent-minded kiss from her mother; and from Christine or Adelaide, "There's mail for you up-stairs on your desk, Connie," would be all in the way of greeting.
But she was mistaken this time. She had no sooner announced her arrival by a quiet "Hello, people," from the threshold of the long living-room which stretched the length of the house on the second floor, than she was pounced upon by Christine.
"It's Connie! Home again! Come in, Connie,—we've news—all sorts," she exclaimed.
And even before Constance had taken off her things, or freshened up with a little soap and hot water, or had a chance to admonish herself sternly in her own mirror up-stairs with a grim "Cheer-up. For goodness' sake, cheer-up!" the various triumphs of her talented brothers and sisters were showered upon her pell-mell, all at once, by an ecstatic Christine.
There was always an accumulation of news after an absence of two weeks from the family circle—Constance expected news—but it seldom was all of a congratulatory kind. As the glowing Christine reeled off in big-print, headline fashion the various items of family victories, Constance said to herself, "I ought to be proud to belong to such a family. I ought to be glad to hear about their successes. What a selfish pig I am, not to be glad!"
Adelaide had been asked to be dean of a new summer college for women! Maude was going to have another baby! Christine herself had had another short story accepted—her fourth now! Bert had been made a first lieutenant and Harry a captain! And Constance was glad about each separate item. Of course she was! She had murmured, "Splendid," "Fine," "Great," in turn after each one. It was only the sum total of them that hurt. It was only the galling realization that she herself could add no glory at all to the family effulgence.
"Just think, Connie," Christine had exclaimed, unaware she was treading on tender ground—it had never occurred to her that Connie had it in her to envy any of them success—"Just think what feathers in dear old Dad's and Mother's caps. A lieutenant, a captain," she counted them off on her fingers, "a dean, another grandchild, and," she added mockingly of herself, "an author, too, if you please. An author in embryo anyhow." She laughed and made a little bow. She was always in an irrepressibly joyous mood when one of her stories had been accepted.
"You must be very proud, Mother and Dad," Constance managed to say steadily enough.
"Yes, yes, yes, we are, we are," her father agreed, nodding at her over the rims of his glasses. "Pretty good records they're making on the whole."
They're making! How casually he ignored her record, how naturally he counted her out of the family honors.
She turned and left the room when she could, groped her way up two flights of stairs to the large luxurious bedroom which she shared with Adelaide. Thank goodness, it was empty! Constance did not turn on the electricity. There was a light in the hall which lit the room sufficiently for her to put away her outside things in their familiar places in the closet. Immediately afterwards she flung herself down on the long couch in the bay window, and lying there, without a flicker of an eyelash or a trace of a tear, she faced a few merciless truths about herself.
"Myrtle's right," she said, "there's no possible excuse for my existence. The world wouldn't lose anything if it lost me. No one would lose anything. I'm necessary to nobody's happiness like Myrtle or Maude; I'm of service to no institution like Adelaide; of value to no cause like Bert and Harry; I'm of promise to nothing in the way of art or beauty like Christine."
Every act in the lives of Myrtle and her brothers and sisters, it occurred to Constance, the tiniest and homeliest, was one more thread worked into their lives' patterns, which some day they could lay out before them and contemplate. In her life, every act was one more senseless snarl in a horrible conglomeration of false starts, dropped fads, dead interests.
Her mother had once said of her (quietly, kindly, but truthfully after all) that she had been misnamed, "Unless," Mrs. Weatherby had smilingly added, "persistent changing from one hobby to another is a form of constancy."
Mr. and Mrs. Weatherby had believed in the elective system when it came to the pursuits their children followed after their educations were completed. The others had all had a goal in mind—but never Constance. Once relieved of a college curriculum and left free to follow her own inclinations, Constance's pursuits had been so many and varied that she had won the title of "family faddist" in a short time. She had spent the first year after her graduation in a school of domestic science; the second at an agricultural college; the next six months in learning how to run a typewriter; and another half year at being taught how to take an automobile apart and put it together again. There were few activities open to women of the leisure class, that Constance hadn't sampled. Since the war she had given a trial to as many courses as were offered in First Aid, Dietetics, and Home Nursing; and the nature of her volunteer service was stamped by the same fluctuating tendency.
Her excuse to herself had been that her changing was but a search for the rare something, to remain constant to which would be a joy and delight. She had never found that something; and she never would now. And the reason she had never found it was to be discovered in the weakness of her own character, she told herself. She hadn't been willing to hack her way through the hard outside rock of any of her experiments, and so naturally hadn't come upon gold. Her peckings at the piano and violin were fair examples. Her decision midway in college to be satisfied with a B. L. instead of an A. B., which degree she had found would require a little more effort, was another proof of the poor stuff of which she was made.
"I'm no good. That's all. Simple enough. There's usually one member of a large family who's no good. I'm that one. Good thing I'm not a man. 'Twould be tragic if Bert or Harry was the ne'er-do-well member of the family. But even if I'm not much good," she said savagely to herself, "my feelings aren't made of leather. To hear them down-stairs there, you'd think they thought me too much of a fool even to perceive what a failure I am in comparison to them."
Her black mood was still upon her in the morning. However, she chirruped a cheerful greeting to everybody at the breakfast table, and no one guessed that her manner concealed a black bear (as she called these fits of depression of hers). Probably the beast would have slunk away after a day or two, as was its habit, and with no one the wiser, but for an inadvertent moment in the automobile as Constance accompanied her father to his down-town office.
She often rode down town with him in the morning. There was nothing else important she had to do, as a rule; and as her father knew it, and liked company—especially her company—(they rode horse-back, played golf incessantly together, and cribbage and chess—they had always been good comrades) he had fallen into the habit of turning to her every morning and inquiring, "Coming, Connie?"
This morning, en route to the office he left her seated in the automobile while he did an errand which would keep him, he thought, about ten minutes. He was back in three, and Constance, who hadn't dared risk shedding a tear in the room which she shared with Adelaide, but had thought herself quite safe in the back corner of the limousine, had been found by her father shielding with one hand her closed eyes, which when she uncovered and opened them were swimming with unmistakable tears! She blushed crimson. Her father hated to have anybody around him who was unhappy or discontented. His praise of her even temper had been the one cherished treasure of which the years hadn't robbed her. To lose that would leave her jewel-box pitifully empty.
Her father was a kind of god to Constance. She worshiped him. Always had. That's why she endured cribbage and chess. She wouldn't have been hired to play either game with anybody else. But if she couldn't make her father proud, she could at least make him comfortable—soothe him, fit him like his arm-chair. And now he had discovered her in tears!
"What is it, Constance?" he inquired when seated beside her.
She gave a mirthless little laugh. It didn't sound to Mr. Weatherby like Connie's.
"Oh, not much, Dad." she replied.
"But you're unhappy," he insisted, and laid his hand upon her knee. Caresses were rare between them. Her father's touch shot through her like a knife.
"Oh, Dad," she broke out, casting off all disguise at last. She was tired of disguise. "Oh, Dad, I sometimes wonder why I was ever born!
The moment she spoke she was sorry. Her father looked so shocked, so pained. She found herself in the position of trying to reassure and comfort him, instead of the other way round. It was the last straw! The one feature that had made life bearable at home had been that none of them, especially her father, guessed that she guessed what an utter no-account she was. Now she had smashed even that little illusion.
It was the same afternoon, seated in the reading-room of the public library, a retreat Constance had sought before when in the grip of self-dissatisfaction, that she ran across a sentence that caught her attention. It was the only thing that had caught her attention and held it, during the entire two hours that she had spent dipping into this magazine and that, in an effort to focus her attention on some other human problem than her own.
The sentence was in fine print, hidden away in a twenty-cent magazine, half-way down a long column between glowing advertisements of Baking Powder and Toilet Soap. The sentence was in quotation marks and repeated a telegram cabled to Washington from a woman at the head of certain canteens in France.
"Don't send us any more executive women," it said. "Ship us a few fools."
Was it a misprint? Did they mean ship us a few tools? The difference between "f" and "t" was less than a sixteenth of an inch. Constance stared at the sentence.
"I'm no good as a tool. Nor shaped for any special purpose, and not enough steel to me to be of use in the rough, but if it's fools they want—" She stared into space. She had never seriously considered France. France required trained women, she had always witheringly been informed.
Surreptitiously she mailed an inquiry to the editor of the magazine that night.
"Fools is right," the editor replied four days later.
"Then," said Constance to the black mood which still held her, "it's a clear call for me, I guess. Talk about and the Voices! I don't know how I shall live through the danger zone but it may not prove any worse than black bears."
However there wasn't a black bear anywhere near Constance when word came one late afternoon some seven or eight weeks later that her application had been accepted, and that she was to report in New York a fortnight hence. And there hadn't been a black bear for two weeks.
During the intervals between the black bear's attacks Constance managed to keep very cheerful. Therefore the announcement that the way lay open for her to go to France, coming when it did, appeared less like an avenue of escape. It appeared rather as a trap which dismayed and alarmed her when she found it had actually snapped on her. The summons arrived by special delivery, just as she was dressing for a dinner-and-theater-party. It was brought to her on a silver tray by a white-capped-and-cuffed maid, in slate-gray alpaca, and a ruffled white apron. It spoiled the theater-party for Constance. It spoiled even the pleasure she was taking in getting ready for it. She was sitting, bare-shouldered, before a silver-laden dressing-table, when she broke the envelope of the summons, enjoying the warmth and comfort of her surroundings and very happy and contented, just having accomplished satisfactory results with four hairpins and a net.
"Why, what in the world have I gone and done anyhow?" she whispered aghast. "I must have been mad! I'm not really made of the right stuff for France." One of the items in the list of equipment which the letter contained, stood out and grinned at her. "I can't wear wool against my skin! Never could. Makes me creep." And as she continued with her dressing, first pushing the letter far out of sight in her top bureau drawer, it seemed to her that such things as hot water and a porcelain tub, and linen towels, and a piece of soft chamois and powder, and sheets (she glanced towards Adelaide's and her luxurious beds), and pillow-cases and down comforters, and a hot water-bottle for cold feet at night, had become necessities to her. Surely it was absurd for her to consider roughing it in France—or roughing it anywhere. She would simply hate it! She must have been in a queer abnormal state of mind when she had volunteered. The truth was, she guessed, she hadn't really believed she would be accepted. So many friends of hers were not.
She had applied to but one organization—a Relief Unit formed by the alumnæ of her College soon after the United States had entered the war, and engaged in rehabilitating devastated portions of France.
"I don't believe I ought to become a member of such an organization. I might disgrace it," she argued to herself later that same evening, as she sat staring across the foot-lights at the mannikins upon the stage, prattling words to each other, utterly meaningless to her. "I don't believe it's right, just for the sake of saving my own face, for a creature like me to go over there, and eat up precious food, and take up precious space on the steamer. I don't believe it's patriotic. Besides there's my new war work here."
Mr. Weatherby had given Constance a wonderful toy a fortnight before—an automobile all her own. "A device to make me stop wondering why I was ever born—poor, troubled, helpless man," Constance had suspicioned. Device or not, the automobile had proved very engrossing, and as soon as Constance obtained her chauffeur's license she planned to join a woman's motor-corps, and volunteer to carry wounded soldiers from the ships to the hospitals, when once the heroes began to return. This amazing order to report in New York two weeks from Wednesday, and be ready to sail the following day, would be disastrous to the motor-corps plan. "Moreover, I'm an awful coward. They may want fools in France but they can't want cowards. Why, whenever I sleep in a room alone at night, I look under my bed. I'm that kind. And a mouse rustling paper in a waste-basket, or the creak of a willow-chair, simply makes my blood run cold."
In the months that followed, Constance often asked herself if she would have possessed enough moral stamina to grasp the great opportunity offered her if it had not been for Myrtle's letter. Myrtle's letter came the morning after the theater-party. It was written in pencil, feebly, but its news, it appeared, was too important, too wonderful, to be postponed till strength returned. Myrtle announced triumphantly the arrival of a brand new little Sammy for the army!
She needn't, it seemed to Constance, have put it just like that to her, who couldn't provide little Sammies. She needn't have said to her that the happiest moment of a woman's life was when her infant son (Myrtle's two other children had been girls) was laid in her arms by a proud father. Really it did seem to Constance as if Myrtle enjoyed not only waking up her black bear, if he slept, but sicking him on to her afterwards!
Constance dreaded another attack of depression and despair. She dreaded France too, but perhaps France with its unseen terrors was to be preferred.
It wasn't however until after she had signed her name to her note of congratulation to the exalted Myrtle that she made a final decision, and then she made it hastily, on the spur of the moment, as her feelings took a sudden downward dip, before she had recovered from the physical sickening effect of it.
"Oh, I might as well go as stay, I guess," she said with a little shrug, and leaning over her letter to Myrtle, she had added, "P. S. I'm sailing for France two weeks from Wednesday. Wish me luck."
"Now I've got to!" she whispered.
Afterwards she put on her hat and coat, and almost ran to the telegraph office to clinch her decision by ten words clicked over the wires to New York.
Any one who has ever dabbled in photography to the extent of shutting himself up in a tight little closet, its pitch darkness tempered slightly by a dim red glow, and dipped dark, smoky-looking pieces of glass and paper into various solutions, knows with what eagerness he waits for the blank black squares and strips to come to life, break out into spots of light, which gradually assume familiar shapes and contours. It's like watching a dawn. It's like watching clouds and a pale drab sea, and the fleck of a white sail flower slowly from out of a lifting fog. It's exciting almost. There's something about it that reminds one of the Creation according to Genesis. For, beneath your very fingers, in the course of a few minutes from out of utter blackness a little world is formed. Imagine, if you can, how eagerly Constance must have watched that which took place upon her sensitized plate of life, when France proved to be the correct developing solution to bring out the picture long hidden upon it—when to her wondering eyes her various ventures, which had so long looked to her like nothing but a befuddled mass of spots and splotches, began slowly justifying themselves. She was in a continual state of wanting to exclaim out loud over the gradually unfolding miracle.
"Why, I see now! Of course! Of course!" she would whisper again and again, as the succeeding days called into service various scraps of knowledge and experience picked up here and there in her experiments.
"I see now why I learned how to fill grease-cups," she exclaimed joyfully the first night she spent until dawn in the make-shift garage, getting the Unit's several cars ready for an early start of relief and succor. Or a little later when in an emergency she was sent to watch alone beside the death-bed of an old French woman, "I see now why I took home-nursing." And again when she found herself working with spade and hoe on the bruised French soil, searing over its open cuts and gashes, healing it, giving it new life, "I see now why I put in six months learning about the habits of potatoes and corn and beans."
"I see now why I play the piano a little," she confided to herself as she helped teach grave little black-frocked French children to laugh and to sing again. "I wonder," she groped, "if all honest effort, even brief and fragmentary effort like mine has always been, needs only to be harnessed up the way steam does, to be of use to the world."
However, in spite of the fact that Constance saw her life daily becoming a more useful and significant one, she was not entirely satisfied. There still lurked doubts, misgivings. It occurred to her, with troublesome frequency, that there waited eagerly at home twenty girls at least, to fill her place in the Unit, should she drop out, twenty girls as competent—more competent—she feared, than she. Useful she was becoming, yes—possibly. But the Myrtles—the mothers of the world, were indispensable. So were the Adelaides and Christines—leaders and artists. Therefore in her letters to the family Constance avoided any allusion to the shapes and figures forming upon the plate of her life, in the great soul-developing room of the war. If the family could not discern them for themselves, she would not point them out!
In her letters home she was as gay and self-ridiculing as ever. Her communications continually poked fun at herself, and held up to scorn any event or mishap in which she appeared at a disadvantage. The girls, Christine and Adelaide and Maude, always enjoyed laughing with her at herself. She was apologetic about a report that had reached them as to her calm behavior during her first air-raid.
"I didn't feel calm, and if it hadn't been for automobile trouble, and a very sick baby on the back seat, you'd have heard of me scuttling fast for the first cellar. As it was, the best chance we had of getting through alive, it seemed to me, was to postpone my teeth-chattering for half-an-hour, whisper 'oats' quick into the ear of my balky horse, and gallop along as speedily as possible. You know how horribly afraid I used to be at home of queer noises at night which might prove to be burglars getting into the house, or a man shifting his position in the closet? Well, I'm no different. I'll be just the same when I get back again. There's such a lot of time at home for sitting idle, or lying idle, and imagining spooky things. It's the imagining that gets you 'jumpy.' The reason you don't get 'jumpy' here, when you ought to according to your former reputation, is because you're so terribly busy, or so terribly sleepy, and there's no chance for imagining things. I pray I may be one or the other when my first test for courage comes."
A fear which haunted Constance more than her doubts as to the real value of her usefulness, was that, in the face of actual terror, the poor stuff which she had so long persuaded herself she was made of, would be exposed. She would crumple up—fail somehow. She had heard of soldiers—men, tried and trained, who had lost their nerve at the first terrific noise of an attack.
She didn't realize when she wrote her letter to Adelaide that her test for courage was to come so soon. Scarcely a week later and the little group of French villages which the College Unit had been working so long to instill with fresh hope was again swept by war. The roar of barrage fire for the second time vibrated through the little towns; and the remnants of old people and children left in them, knowing well what the roar and the trembling had preceded before, began again to roll up little bundles of food and clothing.
Constance had read many accounts of evacuations, had listened to many, had gazed long at countless sketches, drawn in charcoal by great artists, of terror-stricken refugees, but she hadn't conceived what it was really like. She hadn't supposed there would be troops upon troops of retreating soldiers mixed in among the refugees—silent bands, ambulances evacuating hospitals, rattling wagons full of army equipment, evidence upon evidence of defeat, surrender. She hadn't been able, either, to imagine the terrific noise—the continuous accompaniment to the confusion. Oh—such confusion! It was chaos. By evening of the first day of the retreat the village streets were filled with a horribly mixed-up mass of animate and inanimate objects—human beings, animals, household furniture, stray cows blocking traffic, stray hens, stray children. And the most frightening feature of it was, it seemed to Constance, that the mass grew steadily bigger and bigger, as the hours proceeded. She was thankful that there was so much work to do and that calmness was expected of her as a matter of course.
On the first day of the retreat Constance was placed in charge of one of the Unit's automobiles, and instructed to make as many trips as possible out of the village, conveying the sick, and the old, and the feeble. She worked arduously, turning the nose of her sturdy little car—well oiled and greased by her own hands—time and time again back towards the doomed village, never once faltering, although the thundering of cannon grew louder and louder, and dispatch-riders reported the Germans ever approaching.
It was after midnight of the second day (Constance had been able to snatch but two hours sleep in forty-eight) that orders were finally issued for the members of the Unit, not to return to their headquarters again, but to proceed to the refugee center. The Germans were then only five miles away.
Constance's car was filled to overflowing with human cargo on its last trip out of the village. On the driving seat beside Constance sat another member of the Unit, Ellen Winslow, with a six-hour-old baby, done up in a piece of woolen blanket in her arms.
They had been almost an hour on their journey when, at an important cross-roads, they were stopped by a traffic officer, a man well acquainted with the Unit. He wanted to know if Constance, or her companion, one of them, would stand at the cross-roads, and direct the traffic, allowing the other one to proceed with the car. It was vital. If any of the troops or refugees took the wrong road it would lead them over a hill, now being shelled by German guns. The officer himself must return to a similar post of duty.
"I'll do it," said Constance promptly. "You'll be more needed at the other end, Ellen." Ellen was a full-fledged trained nurse. "Pass the baby to somebody else, and you take the wheel. I'll stay here. You can come back for me in the morning."
She jumped out of the automobile, gave her word to the officer that she could carry out his orders, called out a cheerful good-by to him, another cheerful good-by to Ellen and her passengers, and, a moment later, found herself standing alone at the cross-roads, beneath the humming planes, whistling shells (she had never heard a whistling shell till yesterday) surrounded on all sides by the boom of cannon.
The force of the retreating wave had passed this particular spot. Constance imagined there would be long periods of watching between the stragglers, whom she was placed there to direct. What if she should begin to be afraid? There was nothing she had got to do with her hands; there was nothing she had got to do with her brain; and sleep was forbidden. It was the hardest thing in the world to control your thoughts when you were awake and idle, she had written Adelaide. What if one of the German aeroplanes should see her! What if one of the German guns got its range on her! She shook herself a little and buttoned her coat up close about her neck. Glanced at her watch. Only ten minutes since Ellen had gone! She wished Ellen was there—or somebody (a child would have done) who expected her to be self-controlled.
There was a cellar a hundred yards back on the road. She had passed it as she came along with Ellen—a safe retreat where she might crouch without being seen, if only there had been but one road to watch. As it was there were three roads along which refugees might arrive at the junction where she had been placed. She couldn't consider the cellar. She mustn't even think of it, or it would draw her, she feared, like a magnet a powerless needle. She turned her back resolutely towards it.
It was not until after Constance had directed her first troop of soldiers away from danger that her fear of being afraid let go for a moment its clammy grip upon her. Why, but for her, and the soldiers would have taken the hill road! They had turned already when she spoke! But for her, and a German shell might have found its mark! That realization acted like a steadying hand placed upon her shoulder. She had got to keep steady. Human lives depended upon it. It would mean the loss of valuable material to the cause of the peace of the world, if she didn't! She had got to prove that her name was not a paradox—not for her own satisfaction, not for the family's sake, but for the sake of the people whom she was placed there to warn. Steadfastness—six or seven hours of unflinching steadfastness—was what her task required. It was a quality which she had been brought up to believe was not a strong one with her. But, weak or strong, what of that? No time for introspection now! No time to split hairs as to her fitness or unfitness for her job. She alone stood between the refugees and possible catastrophe. She alone! "Why," it occurred to her with sudden unexpectedness, "I am indispensable! To a few defeated soldiers—to a few foot-weary refugees—I am indispensable!"
France had been a series of revelations to Constance. This night was the climax. This night, this 23rd of March, 1918, and she alone at a cross-roads—directing traffic in the great world-war, gave justification to her birth, she believed! A feeling of exaltation took possession of her at the mere thought of such a possibility. It crowded out her fear, it crowded out fatigue—hunger. It penetrated to her soul. It did something to her eyes—something magic. Doubt, perplexity had been gradually disappearing from her vision ever since she landed in France, but now that vision became of supernatural clearness. This night—the two soldiers whom she had just saved, the others approaching whom she might save—she saw flash before her as the "central object" in her picture. Her deplored childlessness, her hunger for close human ties, her lamented mediocrity sank where they belonged, into the background of the composition. They were insignificant—trivial. Even the weaknesses of her character would appear less distinct if she could triumph to-night.
The real test of courage lies in the length of its endurance. It was when the first signs of dawn began to steal into the troubled sky above Constance, after she had directed some dozen or so refugees along the way to safety, that she knew, without a shadow of doubt, that she would continue equal to the demands of her great opportunity. She would not fail. At whatever hour she was relieved, whatever renewed activity took place in the firing above and about her, with the breaking of the dawn, she would not flinch—not now! A thrill of joy ran through her. Every event in her life that made possible this particular hour of dawn and fulfillment, she accepted eagerly, gladly. Everything in her life, past and present, was "all right—all right, at last," she said out loud. She was happy, happy! If only Dad could know how happy she was! She wished she might tell him that he needn't worry ever again about what she had said to him that far-off day at home.
He did worry. She was sure of it. Two weeks after her outbreak she recalled how sadly he had remarked to her one Saturday morning, driving home after a game of golf, "I'm sorry anybody whose life seems of such importance to me should wonder why she was ever born." And a half dozen times at least in his letters lately, he had repeated her unfortunate phrase, word for word. She did wish she could talk to Dad now—to-night—this moment. It would be too bad for Dad to keep on believing her dissatisfied with her lot—unhappy—unrecompensed. Oh, he mustn't! Dear Dad—she loved him most of any man. He of all people ought to know of the revelation that had come to her to-night.
It was difficult for Constance to express thoughts, feelings, intangible events on paper. But she must try. And now. Later—to-morrow, it might be too late. The conviction might fade and never visit her again so vividly.
She tore out a page from her note book, sat down on a rock by a tree. It was dawn. Light enough. The noise was terrific. More barrage fire, she concluded. But she could write, she guessed.
When Ellen came to relieve Constance at eight o'clock, as she had promised, she found her there waiting by the tree, between two French soldiers. They had covered her with their overcoats. There was just the least little bit of a scar. A stray bit of shrapnel, the soldiers said.
She'd just pointed out the right road to them, they explained, and sung out so gay and cheerful that there was a canteen and hot coffee not much further on, and then quickly in a flash, had toppled over sidewise, like a child's toy, with the smile still on her lips. They had found this bit of paper in her hands with the English writing on it in pencil. Perhaps the English lady might like to read it. Ellen took the bit of paper from the soldier's hands. There hadn't been time for Constance to write but a few words, just eleven, in fact—but the light of her message shone a long way down the years of the man she loved best.
"Dear Dad," Ellen read through her tears, "Don't worry any more. At last I know why—"
And here her message ended abruptly. She had had to stop a moment to direct two French soldiers to safety.
In war as in peace, there are births as well as deaths happening every hour.