They had been talking of the Marsdens, who had just gone down with the torpedoed ship; and among the kindly and affectionate things said about them, the exceptional happiness of their married life was mentioned.
Some one spoke of this as being rather surprising, as they had married so late in life; then, naturally enough, another remarked what a different world it would be if every man had been accepted by the first girl he had proposed to. And he added, that sometimes he thought that first choice was one of truer instinct, less tinctured with the world’s sophistication than any later one. The bachelor contributed with a laugh that that first girl had one advantage over the wife, no matter how perfect the latter—that she remained the ideal. And then, little by little, they came to the point of agreeing to tell, then and there, in the elegance and dignity of the clubroom suited to the indulgence of their late middle years, each one about that first girl, and what she had meant to him.
The Explorer began.
“I met her in the Adirondacks, and knew her only one summer. After that, I couldn’t see her just as a friend—and she was unwilling to be anything else to me. So, all my life, I’ve associated her with the woods and lakes, with the sincerity and wholesomeness of the great Outdoors. She had the freedom of Diana, and her lack of self-consciousness. I never saw her except roughly clad, but she always suggested that line of Virgil—‘She walked the goddess.’
“She was strong and lithe as a boy, could climb mountains, row, play golf and tennis with any of us; and what a good sport. She never fussed over getting caught in drenching rains, being bruised and torn by rocks and thorns; and once when a small party of us lost our way, and had to spend the night on a lonely mountainside within sound of wolves and catamounts, her gayety made a ‘lark’ of it. She could drive horses with a man’s steady hands; she knew the birds by name, and all the plants and trees that grew within miles, and she was familiar with the tracks and habits of all the small creatures of the forest. To me she was—simply wonderful, and, I confess, always has been.”
“What became of her?” they asked.
“Later, she married—a man who didn’t know a pine from a palm! I always wondered….”
The Diplomat came next.
“That sort,” he said, “is a little too independent and upstanding to belong to my type of woman. The rough, tanned skin, the strong, capable hands—big, probably—the woolen skirt and blouse—they’ll do very well in a girl chum, for a summer. But when it comes to a wife, one’s demands are different. The girl I wanted first—and I’ve never forgotten her; she was a queen—I knew during my first winter in Washington. You talk of Diana; I prefer Venus—wholly feminine, but never cloying. She was the kind that looks best in thin, clinging things. I remember yet a shimmering green and silver ‘creation’ she wore at the Inaugural Ball. She didn’t take hikes with me through scratchy forests, but she’d dance all night long, and her little feet would never tire. She didn’t handle guns or tillers, but you should have seen her pretty fingers deftly managing the tea things in a drawing-room, of a winter’s afternoon, or playing soft, enchanting airs on the piano at twilight; or, for the matter of that, placing a carnation in a man’s button-hole—I can feel her doing it yet! She probably didn’t know birds, but, by George! she knew men! And there wasn’t one of us young fellows that winter that wouldn’t gladly have had her snare him. Only—that was the one thing she didn’t do!”
“Didn’t she ever do any snaring?”
“Oh—finally. And—the pity of it!—a man who couldn’t dance, and had no use for Society! Sometimes….”
“How about you?” the third member of the group was asked, an Engineer of national reputation. “Was there a first best girl for you, too?”
“Guilty!” he replied. “But my account will sound prosaic after these others. You know, my early days weren’t given to expensive summer camps, nor to Washington ballrooms. I made my own way through college, and ‘vacations’ meant the hardest work of the year. But when I was a Senior, all the drudgery was transformed. Paradise wouldn’t have been in it with that little co-educational college campus and library and chapel and classrooms; for I found her. Just a classmate she was. You tell how your girls dressed; I never noticed how she dressed; it might have been in shimmering green and silver, and it might have been in linsey-woolsey, for all I knew. But—she could think, and she could talk! We discussed everything together, from philosophy and the evolution of history to the affairs of the day. I spent every hour with her that I could, and in all sorts of places. There’s a spot in the stackroom of the old library that I always visit yet, when I go back—because of her. I’ve never known a woman since with such a mind, such breadth and clearness; and it showed in her face—the face of Athena, not Diana or Venus! I believed that with such a companion at my side, to turn to in every perplexity, I could make my life worth while. But she—saw it differently.”
“Is she a feminist now?” slyly inquired the Explorer.
“She, too, married, after a while—a fine fellow, but—anything but a student. I can’t help….”
“Mine,” said the fourth, the Socialist, “will sound least dramatic of all—though I assure you the time was dramatic enough for me. You talk about your goddesses; my pedestal held just a sweet human girl,—a nurse, serving her first year at the hospital, that time we had the smash-up in ’80. And you talk of beauty, and style, and brain; but with me it isn’t of a pretty face or graceful form I think when I recall that magic time; and least of all is it of any intellectual prowess. I’m not sure whether she knew the difference between physics and metaphysics, or whether she’d ever heard of a cosine. But she was endowed with the charm of charms in a woman—sympathy. She would listen by the hour while I poured out to her my young hopes and ambitions; I could tell her all the dreams a young fellow cherishes most deeply—and would die of mortification if even his best friend guessed at their existence. She always understood; and though she talked little herself, she had the effect of making me appear at my very best. I felt I could move the world if she would just stand by and watch. But in spite of her kindness and gentleness she turned me down. Many times I’ve questioned….”
“That was all right for a sick boy,” commented the Diplomat, “but for a wife, a girl like Alison——”
“‘Alison,’” echoed the Engineer, involuntarily, “a nice name, anyway; that was her name.”
“Why——” the Explorer mused—“that’s an odd coincidence; so was hers—Alison Forbes.”
“Alison Forbes”—breathed the Socialist—“Alison Forbes—Marsden!”
And suddenly there was a silence, and the four friends looked strangely at one another. For they knew in that moment that there had been in those lives of theirs left far behind, not four first girls, but one—seen with different eyes.