At breakfast, where the guests were reasonably punctual, they were all able to observe, in the rapid succession in which they descended from their rooms, that it had stopped snowing and the sun was shining brilliantly.
"There isn't enough for sleighing," Mrs. Westangle proclaimed from the head of the table in her high twitter, "and there isn't any coasting here in this flat country for miles."
"Then what are we going to do with it?" one of the young ladies humorously pouted.
"That's what I was going to suggest," Mrs. Westangle replied. She pronounced it 'sujjest', but no one felt that it mattered. "And, of course," she continued, "you needn't any of you do it if you don't like."
"We'll all do it, Mrs. Westangle," Bushwick said. "We are unanimous in that."
"Perhaps you'll think it rather funny—odd," she said.
"The odder the better, I think," Verrian ventured, and another man declared that nothing Mrs. Westangle would do was odd, though everything was original.
"Well, there is such a thing as being too original," she returned. Then she turned her head aside and looked down at something beside her plate and said, without lifting her eyes, "You know that in the Middle Ages there used to be flower-fights among the young nobility in Italy. The women held a tower, and the men attacked it with roses and flowers generally."
"Why, is this a speech?" Miss Macroyd interrupted.
"A speech from the throne, yes," Bushwick solemnly corrected her. "And she's got it written down, like a queen—haven't you, Mrs. Westangle?"
"Yes, I thought it would be more respectful."
"She coming out," Bushwick said to Verrian across the table.
"And if I got mixed up I could go back and straighten it," the hostess declared, with a good—humored candor that took the general fancy, "and you could understand without so much explaining. We haven't got flowers enough at this season," she went on, looking down again at the paper beside her plate, "but we happen to have plenty of snowballs, and the notion is to have the women occupy a snow tower and the men attack them with snowballs."
"Why," Bushwick said, "this is the snow-fort business of our boyhood! Let's go out and fortify the ladies at once." He appealed to Verrian and made a feint of pushing his chair back. "May we use water-soaked snowballs, or must they all be soft and harmless?" he asked of Mrs. Westangle, who was now the centre of a storm of applause and question from the whole table.
She kept her head and referred again to her paper. "The missiles of the assailants are to be very soft snowballs, hardly more than mere clots, so that nobody can be hurt in the assault, but the defenders may repel the assailants with harder snowballs."
"Oh," Miss Macroyd protested, "this is consulting the weakness of our sex."
"In the fury of the onset we'll forget it," Verrian reassured her.
"Do you think you really will, Mr. Verrian?" she asked. "What is all our athletic training to go for if you do?"
Mrs. Westangle read on:
"The terms of capitulation can be arranged on the ground, whether the castle is carried or the assailing party are made prisoners by its defenders."
"Hopeless captivity in either case!" Bushwick lamented.
"Isn't it rather academic?" Miss Macroyd asked of Verrian, in a low voice.
"I'm afraid, rather," he owned.
"But why are you so serious?" she pursued.
"Am I serious?" he retorted, with a trace of exasperation; and she laughed.
Their parley was quite lost in the clamor which raged up and down the table till Mrs. Westangle ended it by saying, "There's no obligation on any one to take part in the hostilities. There won't be any conscription; it's a free fight that will be open to everybody." She folded the paper she had been reading from and put it in her lap, in default of a pocket. She went on impromptu:
"You needn't trouble about building the fort, Mr. Bushwick. I've had the farmer and his men working at the castle since daybreak, and the ladies will find it all ready for them, when they're ready to defend it, down in the meadow beyond the edge of the birch-lot. The battle won't begin till eleven o'clock."
She rose, and the clamor rose again with her, and her guests crushed about her, demanding to be allowed at least to go and look at the castle immediately.
One of the men's voices asked, "May I be one of the defenders, Mrs. Westangle? I want to be on the winning side, sure."
"Oh, is this going to be a circus chariot-race?" another lamented.
"No, indeed," a girl cried, "it's to be the real thing."
It fell to Verrian, in the assortment of couples in which Mrs. Westangle's guests sallied out to view the proposed scene of action, to find himself, not too willingly, at Miss Macroyd's side. In his heart and in his mind he was defending the amusement which he instantly divined as no invention of Mrs. Westangle's, and both his heart and his mind misgave him about this first essay of Miss Shirley in her new enterprise. It was, as Miss Macroyd had suggested, academic, and at the same time it had a danger in it of being tomboyish. Golf, tennis, riding, boating, swimming—all the vigorous sports in which women now excel—were boldly athletic, and yet you could not feel quite that they were tomboyish. Was it because the bent of Miss Shirley was so academic that she was periling upon tomboyishness without knowing it in this primal inspiration of hers? Inwardly he resented the word academic, although outwardly he had assented to it when Miss Macroyd proposed it. To be academic would be even more fatal to Miss Shirley's ambition than to be tomboyish, and he thought with pathos of that touch about the Italian nobility in the Middle Ages, and how little it could have moved the tough fancies of that crowd of well-groomed young people at the breakfast-table when Mrs. Westangle brought it out with her ignorant acceptance of it as a social force. After all, Miss Macroyd was about the only one who could have felt it in the way it was meant, and she had chosen to smile at it. He wondered if possibly she could feel the secondary pathos of it as he did. But to make talk with her he merely asked:
"Do you intend to take part in the fray?"
"Not unless I can be one of the reserve corps that won't need to be brought up till it's all over. I've no idea of getting my hair down."
"Ah," he sighed, "you think it's going to be rude:"
"That is one of the chances. But you seem to be suffering about it, Mr. Verrian!" she said, and, of course, she laughed.
"Who? I?" he returned, in the temptation to deny it. But he resisted. "I always suffer when there's anything silly happening, as if I were doing it myself. Don't you?"
"No, thank you, I believe not. But perhaps you are doing this? One can't suppose Mrs. Westangle imagined it."
"No, I can't plead guilty. But why isn't it predicable of Mrs. Westangle?"
"You mustn't ask too much of me, Mr. Verrian. Somehow, I won't say how, it's been imagined for her. She's heard of its being done somewhere. It can't be supposed she's read of it, anywhere."
"No, I dare say not."
Miss Macroyd came out with her laugh. "I should like to know what she makes of you, Mr. Verrian, when she is alone with herself. She must have looked you up and authenticated you in her own way, but it would be as far from your way as—well, say—the Milky Way."
"You don't think she asked me because she met me at your house?"
"No, that wouldn't be enough, from her point of view. She means to go much further than we've ever got."
"Then a year from now she wouldn't ask me?"
"It depends upon who asks you in the mean time."
"You might get to be a fad, and then she would feel that she would have to have you."
"You're not flattering me?"
"Do you find it flattering?"
"It isn't exactly my idea of the reward I've been working for. What shall I do to be a fad?"
"Well, rather degrading stunts, if you mean in the smart set. Jump about on all fours and pick up a woman's umbrella with your teeth, and bark. Anything else would be easier for you among chic people, where your brilliancy would count."
"Brilliancy? Oh, thank you! Go on."
"Now, a girl—if you were a girl—"
"Oh yes, if I were a girl! That will be so much more interesting."
"A girl," Miss Macroyd continued, "might do it by posing effectively for amateur photography. Or doing something original in dramatics or pantomimics or recitation—but very original, because chic people are critical. Or if she had a gift for getting up things that would show other girls off; or suggesting amusements; but that would be rather in the line of swell people, who are not good at getting up things and are glad of help."
"I see, I see!" Verrian said, eagerly. But he walked along looking down at the snow, and not meeting the laughing glance that Miss Macroyd cast at his face. "Well?"
"I believe that's all," she said, sharply. She added, less sharply: "She couldn't afford to fail, though, at any point. The fad that fails is extinguished forever. Will these simple facts do for fiction? Or is it for somebody in real life you're asking, Mr. Verrian?"
"Oh, for fiction. And thank you very much. Oh, that's rather pretty!"