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Chapter IX 


THE LEGEND OF HEBE, OR THE HEAVENLY HOUSEMAID

Yes, I blush to admit it, my First Love was a housemaid. So was she known on this dull earth of ours, but in heaven--in the heaven of my imagination, at all events--she was, of course, a goddess. How she managed to keep her disguise I never could understand. To me she was so obviously dea certe. The nimbus was so apparent. Yet no one seemed to see it but me. I have heard her scolded as though she were any ordinary earthly housemaid, and I have seen the butcher's boy trying to flirt with her without a touch of reverence.

Maybe I understood because I saw her in that early hour of the morning when even the stony Memnon sings, in that mystical light of the young day when divine exiled things, condemned to rough bondage through the noon, are for a short magical hour their own celestial selves, their unearthly glory as yet unhidden by any earthly disguise.

Neither fairies nor fauns, dryads nor nymphs of the forest pools, have really passed away from the world. You have only to get up early enough to meet them in the meadows. They rarely venture abroad after six. All day long they hide in uncouth enchanted forms. They change maybe to a field of turnips, and I have seen a farmer priding himself on a flock of sheep that I knew were really a most merry company of dryads and fauns in disguise. I had but to make the sign of the cross, sprinkle some holy water upon them, and call them by their sweet secret names, and the whole rout had been off to the woods, with mad gambol and song, before the eyes of the astonished farmer.

It was so with Hebe. She was really a little gold-haired blue-eyed dryad, whose true home was a wild white cherry-tree that grew in some scattered woodland behind the old country-house of my boyhood. In spring- time how that naughty tree used to flash its silver nakedness of blossom for miles across the furze and scattered birches!

I might have known it was Hebe.

Alas! it no longer bares its bosom with so dazzling a prodigality, for it is many a day since it was uprooted. The little dryad long since fled away weeping,--fled away, said evil tongues, fled away to the town.

Well do I remember our last meeting. Returning home one evening, I met her at the lodge-gate hurrying away. Our loves had been discovered, and my mother had shuddered to think that so pagan a thing had lived so long in a Christian house. I vowed--ah! what did I not vow?--and then we stole sadly together to comfort our aching hearts under cover of the woodland. For the last time the wild cherry-tree bloomed,--wonderful blossom, glittering with tears, and gloriously radiant with stormy lights of wild passion and wilder hopes.

My faith lived valiantly till the next spring. It was Hebe who was faithless. The cherry-tree was dead, for its dryad had gone,--fled, said evil tongues, fled away to the town!

But as yet, in the time to which my thoughts return, our sweet secret mornings were known only to ourselves. It was my custom then to rise early, to read Latin authors,--thanks to Hebe, still unread. I used to light my fire and make tea for myself, till one rapturous morning I discovered that Hebe was fond of rising early too, and that she would like to light my fire and make my tea. After a time she began to sweeten it for me. And then she would sit on my knee, and we would translate Catullus together,--into English kisses; for she was curiously interested in the learned tongue.

How lovely she used to look with the morning sun turning her hair to golden mist, and dancing in the blue deeps of her eyes; and once when by chance she had forgotten to fasten her gown, I caught glimpses of a bosom that was like two happy handfuls of wonderful white cherries . . .

She wore a marvellous little printed gown. And here I may say that I have never to this day understood objections which were afterwards raised against my early attachment to print. The only legitimate attachment to print stuff, I was told, was to print stuff in the form of blouse, tennis, or boating costume. Yet, thought I, I would rather smuggle one of those little print gowns into my berth than all the silks a sea-faring friend of mine takes the trouble to smuggle from far Cathay. However, every one to his taste; for me,

No silken madam, by your leave, Though wondrous, wondrous she be, Can lure this heart--upon my sleeve-- From little pink-print Hebe.

For I found beneath that pretty print such a heart as seldom beats beneath your satin, warm and wild as a bird's. I used to put my ear to it sometimes to listen if it beat right. Ah, reader, it was like putting your ear to the gate of heaven.

And once I made a song for her, which ran like this:--

There grew twin apples high on a bough Within an orchard fair; The tree was all of gold, I vow, And the apples of silver were.

And whoso kisseth those apples high, Who kisseth once is a king, Who kisseth twice shall never die, Who kisseth thrice--oh, were it I!-- May ask for anything.

Hebe blushed, and for answer whispered something too sweet to tell.

"Dear little head sunning over with curls," were I to meet you now, what would happen? Ah! to meet you now were too painfully to measure the remnant of my youth.

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