They had come into the meadow where the snow battle was to be, and on its slope, against the dark weft of the young birch-trees, there was a mimic castle outlined in the masonry of white blocks quarried from the drifts and built up in courses like rough blocks of marble. A decoration of green from the pines that mixed with the birches had been suggested rather than executed, and was perhaps the more effective for its sketchiness.
"Yes, it's really beautiful," Miss Macroyd owned, and though she did not join her cries to those of the other girls, who stood scattered about admiring it, and laughing and chattering with the men whose applause, of course, took the jocose form, there was no doubt but she admired it. "What I can't understand is how Mrs. Westangle got the notion of this. There's the soprano note in it, and some woman must have given it to her."
"Not contralto, possibly?" Verrian asked.
"I insist upon the soprano," she said.
But he did not notice what she said. His eyes were following a figure which seemed to be escaping up through the birches behind the snow castle and ploughing its way through the drifts; in front of the structure they had been levelled to make an easier battle-field. He knew that it was Miss Shirley, and he inferred that she had been in the castle directing the farm—hands building it, and now, being caught by the premature arrival of the contesting forces, had fled before them and left her subordinates to finish the work. He felt, with a throe of helpless sympathy, that she was undertaking too much. It was hazardous enough to attempt the practice of her novel profession under the best of circumstances, but to keep herself in abeyance so far as not to be known at all in it, and, at the same time, to give way to her interest in it to the extent of coming out, with her infirmly established health, into that wintry weather, and superintending the preparations for the first folly she had planned, was a risk altogether too great for her.
"Who in the world," Miss Macroyd suddenly demanded, "is the person floundering about in the birch woods?"
"Perhaps the soprano," Verrian returned, hardily.
Bushwick detached himself from a group of girls near by and intercepted any response from Miss Macroyd to Verrian by calling to her before he came up, "Are you going to be one of the enemy, Miss Macroyd?"
"No, I think I will be neutral." She added, "Is there going to be any such thing as an umpire?"
"We hadn't thought of that. There could be. The office could be created; but, you know, it's the post of danger."
Verrian joined the group that Bushwick has left. He found a great scepticism as to the combat, mixed with some admiration for the castle, and he set himself to contest the prevalent feeling. What was the matter with a snow-fight? he demanded. It would be great fun. Decidedly he was going in for it. He revived the drooping sentiment in its favor, and then, flown with his success, he went from group to group and couple to couple, and animated all with his zeal, which came, he hardly knew whence; what he pretended to the others was that they were rather bound not to let Mrs. Westangle's scheme fall through. Their doubts vanished before him, and the terms of the battle were quickly arranged. He said he had read of one of those mediaeval flower-fights, and he could tell them how that was done. Where it would not fit into the snow-fight, they could trust to inspiration; every real battle was the effect of inspiration.
He came out, and some of the young women and most of the young men, who had dimly known of him as a sort of celebrity, and suspected him of being a prig, were reconciled, and accepted him for a nice fellow, and became of his opinion as to the details of the amusement before them.
It was not very Homeric, when it came off, or very mediaeval, but it was really lots of fun, or far more fun than one would have thought. The storming of the castle was very sincere, and the fortress was honestly defended. Miss Macroyd was made umpire, as she wished, and provided with a large snowball to sit on at a safe distance; as she was chosen by the men, the girls wanted to have an umpire of their own, who would be really fair, and they voted Verrian into the office. But he refused, partly because he did not care about being paired off with Miss Macroyd so conspicuously, and partly because he wished to help the fight along.
Attacks were made and repelled, and there were feats of individual and collective daring on the side of the defenders which were none the less daring because the assailants stopped to cheer them, and to disable themselves by laughing at the fury of the foe. A detachment of the young men at last stormed the castle and so weakened its walls that they toppled inward; then the defenders, to save themselves from being buried under the avalanche, swarmed out into the open and made the entire force of the enemy prisoners.
The men pretended that this was what might have been expected from the beginning, but by this time the Berserker madness had possessed Miss Macroyd, too; she left her throne of snow and came forward shouting that it had been perfectly fair, and that the men had been really beaten, and they had no right to pretend that they had given themselves up purposely. The sex-partisanship, which is such a droll fact in women when there is any question of their general opposition to men, possessed them all, and they stood as, one girl for the reality of their triumph. This did not prevent them from declaring that the men had behaved with outrageous unfairness, and that the only one who fought with absolute sincerity from first to last was Mr. Verrian.
Neither their unity of conviction concerning the general fact nor the surprising deduction from it in Verrian's case operated to make them refuse the help of their captives in getting home. When they had bound up their tumbled hair, in some cases, and repaired the ravages of war among their feathers and furs and draperies, in other cases, they accepted the hands of the late enemy at difficult points of the path. But they ran forward when they neared the house, and they were prompt to scream upon Mrs. Westangle that there never had been such a success or such fun, and that they were almost dead, and soon as they had something to eat they were going to bed and never going to get up again.
In the details which they were able to give at luncheon, they did justice to Verrian's noble part in the whole affair, which had saved the day, not only in keeping them up to the work when they had got thinking it couldn't be carried through, but in giving the combat a validity which it would not have had without him. They had to thank him, next to Mrs. Westangle herself, whom they praised beyond any articulate expression, for thinking up such a delightful thing. They wondered how she could ever have thought of it—such a simple thing too; and they were sure that when people heard of it they would all be wanting to have snow battles.
Mrs. Westangle took her praises as passively, if not as modestly, as Verrian received his. She made no show of disclaiming them, but she had the art, invaluable in a woman who meant to go far in the line she had chosen, of not seeming to have done anything, or of not caring whether people liked it or not. Verrian asked himself, as he watched her twittering back at those girls, and shedding equally their thanks and praises from her impermeable plumage, how she would have behaved if Miss Shirley's attempt had been an entire failure. He decided that she would have ignored the failure with the same impersonality as that with which she now ignored the success. It appeared that in one point he did her injustice, for when he went up to dress for dinner after the long stroll he took towards night he found a note under his door, by which he must infer that Mrs. Westangle had not kept the real facts of her triumph from the mistress of the revels.
"DEAR MR. VERRIAN, I am not likely to see you, but I must thank you.
"P. S. Don't try to answer, please."
Verrian liked, the note, he even liked the impulse which had dictated it, and he understood the impulse; but he did not like getting the note. If Miss Shirley meant business in taking up the line of life she had professed to have entered upon seriously, she had better, in the case of a young man whose acquaintance she had chanced to make, let her gratitude wait. But when did a woman ever mean business, except in the one great business?