Girls there were plenty in the ballroom who had handmaidens to fan their perspiring necks, but myself not among them, I slipped unobtrusively into the garden.
Not a soul was in sight. The only suggestion of human life drifted in ripples of laughter and strains of song from the ballroom. Silence, coolness, and deep shadow reigned under the many-hued stars and the virgin-white thread of a moon.
Hoping to bathe my neck and face, I stepped down the path toward the fountain in the centre of the garden. A second scrutiny reassured that there was no one about to observe me, and I permitted myself the indignity of trotting.
Soon the pinching of my slippers and the constraint of whalebone about my heaving breast checked my liberty.
“And that débutante dancing earlier—Miss Edith, she was?—how does she manage all this so effortlessly? I reckon her shoe could fit within the palm of my one hand. And so tight her lacing, belike I could nearly span her waist with my two hands.
“Aye, how pretty she was! White as this virgin moon, the pearls and lilies in her hair, and the silken gloves on her slender arms… And has anyone seen such fine skirts, such delicate trimming! And her manners… a perfect little lady: not a word out of tune, nor a fold out of place; not a look, not a smile, not a laugh undue! I suppose perfection comes naturally to some. But what of these others whom beauty exhausts nightly…?”
A rustle—a swiftly-rising tread.
I paused, peered about.
A giant gem-studded mass of fabric and lace whisked by, nearly sending me into the bramble bordering the path with the sheer force of the air it excited in passing. I steadied myself and smothered my indignation, true lady as I was, and studied the swiftly-shrinking figure.
Noticing me not, the débutante strode down the path, straight up to the fountain, and halted, lingering, gazing upon the still water.
What saw she?—what sought?
She raised a graceful, shimmering arm—struck the water with such force that her whole trunk was drenched.
She ripped off her immaculate silken gloves and grabbed in each bare hand the thick of her curls, and with three tugs they all came loose. The rest of her hair—what must have been her true hair, I understood now—fell from its high pompadour into a shapeless tangle over her head and shoulders. And she picked and flung down from this tangle all her gleaming pearls and lilies.
Groping along her back, she loosened the lacing of her bodice, and cast the gorgeous frame of silk upon the grass, and trod on it. Her whirlwind of skirts followed.
She wrestled with the lacing of her crinoline, resorting at last to wrenching at the seams, until I heard the fabric snap. She ran her hands along her back, wresting open the lacing of her corset, and released herself, gasping and gasping like one who has never known till now what joy it is to breathe.
Last of all she unlaced her tiny shoes, held each one high in each fist—they fitted precisely within her palms—and cracked their soles against the stone edge of the fountain.
The sound struck and reverberated like gunfire.
She dropped the broken things, and doused her face in the cool fountain, over and over and over, till she gasped for air.
She paused, and gazed once more at her reflection.
Then she laughed.
The débutante pulled off her stockings, turned around, and stood in nothing but her white petticoat and wild tresses.
Divested of her high hair and voluminous dress and iridescent jewellery—all of a sudden she was nothing but a little lost girl on a dark, lonely lawn, before an enormous house, whence giggles and song still emanated, unaware of her horrific deeds, unaware of her at all.
She faced the house, planted her bare feet a yard apart, and struck her chin up.
Then she spoke.
“Hark ye me,” she cried in a queer voice, like a foal’s first whinny, shrill, broken, but fierce.
“Hark ye who know and have made me as I am. Hark ye all!
“Ye think that ye can cage me in bone and lace and false manners; ye think that ye can parade me like a bauble, that ye can forsake me to the clutch of any strange handsome man who first requests my hand, that fair semblance is all fairness. Yet hark, ye are wrong!
“I am a human and a living soul. And now as ye call me a young woman, I am my own master. I claim my freedom. My freedom to remain chaste as long as I wish; to have friends who love my self and not my wealth nor my title nor my face; to live sincerely, and purely, unfettered by affectation…
“Hark ye me now, for I am no longer your plaything. Yea ye can yell and ye can strike, but I am not afraid of ye. Come, I challenge ye; forever I shall stand here unshakeable, free—”
The little girl on the grass started.
“Miss Edith, you come here this instant!”
She swept the evidence of her crimes behind the fountain and tried to refuge there also, but found the ledge too low to conceal her, and sprang up, eyes darting for a hideaway.
“Here!” I called, and for the first time she noticed me. I had found and we huddled behind a vast maple just off the path, while her handmaiden drew nearer and nearer, her voice rising in impatience with every call.
“Well,” I whispered, “now comes your chance. Show them.”
“Are you mad?”
“No. What stays you? You said you weren’t afraid. Go on!”
She glanced toward the house, and toward the handmaiden, then shuddered and covered her face in her hands.
The call approached irate, unfaltering.