Dick Halcomb stood waiting on the shady station platform. A little groom appeared, suddenly and breathlessly.
“Sorry to be late, sir,” he gasped. “Mrs. Paige and Miss Laura have gone to Mrs. Vingut’s garden party, and left word for you to join them.”
“Damn!” muttered Halcomb. He had had a hard day in the city, and felt quite unequal to dragging himself about, wilted and irritated, any longer. Really, he considered, settling back into the motor, he was getting pretty fed up with this insatiable lust of Laura’s. He wondered whether, when they were married and she was away from her mother, he would be able to instil in her a more normal enjoyment of her pleasures. He thought, vaguely, of not going after all—of awaiting them at the house. But a vision rose before him of Laura all evening wrapped in her delicate fury of aloofness, something too inhumanly polite to be called sulking, but of shattering import to nerves on edge—and he decided grimly that he was too hot, too tired. In the last analysis it was less trouble to go to the garden party.
By this time they were humming smoothly up to the Vinguts’ gates. The breeze had cooled the heat of his brow, but his thoughts were growing only more feverish with the passing moments. He halted the chauffeur suddenly: “Let me out here, Lane. I’ll walk up to the house—I need exercise.”
It was pleasant to stroll along the driveway, to stretch his cramped limbs, and absorb at leisure the careful beauties of the land about him. The lonely graciousness of tall poplar trees, the low-flowering crimson of rhododendrons ministered gratefully to his troubled soul. New satisfaction filled him as he discovered no people in sight. They must be the other side of the house, on the terraces, he thought, restfully. And then, suddenly, he stopped short, staring.
Just ahead in a clearing was an old Italian fountain, gray stone, carved and mellowed by the centuries, water splashing musically into its basin. Sitting on the edge was a tall young girl, the adolescent grace of her body showing clear and white through the classic scantness of her shell-pink draperies. Diana herself she might have been, nymph-robed and formed, her chestnut hair bound about by a silver fillet, her long, white legs, uncovered, dangling in the water. He felt a wild certainty that if he spoke she would melt away into the spray of the fountain. And then she turned her head and saw him.
“You are late,” she said, in a very clear, low voice that merged into the plashing water.
“Yes—I am late,” he stammered. “I wonder … who you are?”
She stared into his eyes with the deep, unconscious gravity of a child.
“I am Athena,” she answered simply.
“Athena!” he gasped. “Good heavens! Then you are a goddess—or a nymph——”
She laughed—and her laughter sounded in his ear more like the fountain than the fountain itself.
“Oh, no,” she reassured him. “We all have Greek names because they are more beautiful.”
“‘We all’!… Good lord, child, who are you?”
“Why—I am Athena—one of the Morris Dancers. We came to do our Spring Dance for the party.”
How absurdly simple, he thought. And yet how insufficiently it explained the wonder of her.
“Why are you here—alone?” he went on. He could do nothing but question her. He had to get to the bottom of her, somehow.
“We’re through dancing—and the people tired me.”
He sat down on the edge of the fountain, and she moved up beside him, touching him, a divine friendliness in her deep blue eyes.
“How did they tire you—child?” he asked her gently.
“They are all so artificial—and so conscious. We are taught how terrible this consciousness of self and sex is. Hellena Morris teaches us that woman is only really beautiful, really strong, when she is quite unconscious and unstudied.”
He eyed the grave little lecturer amusedly.
“Do you understand all that—Athena?” he ventured.
“Why, yes,” she said. “We are all very intelligent. It’s the wholesome life we lead and the perfection of our bodies.”
He threw back his head and laughed.
“I like you when you laugh,” she told him suddenly. “I like you to throw your head back, and the kind little crinkles round your eyes. When you are not laughing you look so tired.”
“I am tired,” he admitted; “tired and disillusioned most of the time. Perhaps it’s my unwholesome life and imperfect body——”
He watched her, glowing with unreasoning pleasure at her laugh.
“Humour, too!” he cried. “Child, you are wonderful! Tell me about yourself … everything. I must know the magic that evolved such perfection.”
“Give me your hand,” she said. “There!… Now you can understand me better.
“There isn’t much to tell. I am seventeen, and have lived with Hellena since I was eight. There are twenty of us. She teaches us … wonderful things. Not hideous ‘accomplishments,’ but real things that will help us—Greek and Latin, and the care of our bodies, and the worship of beauty. We all dance, and sing, and play … and we paint, and write verse, and translate the classics, and read to each other. And we are very strong and hardy, because of our simple lives…. We can beat men at their own games, although we are so slight. We wear few clothes—nothing to restrain or disfigure us. And when we dance we don’t learn special steps; we express in ourselves whatever we are dancing—Sorrow, or Love, or Spring. See, I will do you part of our Spring Dance.”
She drew her white, dripping legs from the fountain and danced before him—a thing so light and delicate, so breeze-blown and whimsical, so altogether lovely, that his distrust of her humanity returned to him unbearably.
She stopped—a sudden flush of rose and gleam of white—and dropped by his side again.
“And every night,” she went on, as though there had been no interruption, “we say our creed: ‘I believe in beauty—all the beauty that ever has been and ever will be in the world. And I will worship and serve it with the highest there is in me—always.’”
He could not speak at first. Then finally, unevenly: “I can’t presume to praise your theory of life, Athena—any more than I could your dancing. Thank you for them both.”
She put her hand on his knee, looking at him, whitely, a little wildly.
“What is your name?” she asked.
“Dick,” he answered, as simply as she had told him hers.
“I should like to marry you—Dick.”
He stared at her.
“So you include marriage—in your scheme of life?” he said dully.
“Yes. Hellena says our marriage laws are terrible, but, while there is no substitute, if we love terribly it is right to marry. I want to marry you, Dick—to be with you always, and take the tired look away from your eyes.”
“Child!” he cried. “You don’t know me!”
“It doesn’t matter,” she told him quaintly. “Love often comes this way.”
He took her hand against his cheek.
“Dear,” he said, “I am thirty-five—a pretty world-stained and world-weary creature. Your radiant youth was given you for a better man than I.”
“I love you, Dick, I have never loved before.”
“Athena, I am … going to marry … some one else.”
She trembled against him.
“Some one you love?” she cried. “Dick, some one you love as you could love me? Is she as young and beautiful? Could she amuse you, and care for you, and adore you always—always, as I would?”
“Athena,” he said slowly, “there is no one like you … in the world. I love this … other girl in my own way. Not as you should be loved, but I’m not fit for such love as that. I can’t marry you. Athena—dear—don’t make it too hard.”
She sat, silent.
Then: “Dick—would you—kiss me?”
He took her gently in his arms.
In the distance people were moving. There was a rustle and a chatter. He let her go suddenly.
“Good-bye—dear,” he said.
“Good-bye—Dick,” she answered dully.
Once he turned back and saw her—drooping, rose-white, against the old gray fountain.
· · · · · · ·
From the gay group ahead Laura detached herself, ruffled and fluttering.
“You’re late enough,” she greeted him.
“Yes,” he said. Then, with an effort: “Have you seen the—Morris Dancers?”
“Oh, yes; we all did. I think they’re rather disgusting—so few clothes and so much throwing themselves about; don’t you?”
“You forget,” he answered slowly, “that I have just arrived.”