Frances Roper.







By Frances Roper


Now this story began a very long time ago and a very long way from here, and it is being continued in London at the present day.  It began in far-away Greece in the far-off days of gods and heroes, it is going on here and now, and when and where it will end the gods themselves alone know.

And this is how the story began. Far up on the slopes of one of the mountains of Greece stood a glade of beech trees; their smooth graceful trunks rose up like columns of the Temple of the God of Nature, the Earth at their feet was thick with fallen beech mast, and the roof overhead was vaulted with softest green, through which the sun - oppressive outside the shelter of the glade – fell in flecks and dapples, enhancing the coolness and shadows within.

This glade spread along the side of the mountain for half a mile or more, on a little terrace; on one side the ground rose steeply to the hot heather-clad shoulder of the mountain and beyond that again up rocks and crags to the snow-capped summit. On the other side the hillside fell away to a steep ravine with roughly wooded sides, with a torrent at the bottom, a good five hundred feet below.

The far side of the ravine was bleak and bare – no trees and only scanty vegetation. But from the beech glade it made a deep blue shadowy distance,  the intervening space glowing in the golden haze of sunlight, the huge trunks of the trees standing out clear out and black against the shimmering light.

For many hundreds of years had the beech glade grown along this terrace on the hillside. Every tree was a giant of its kind, and in each one lived the spirit of the tree, a fragile dainty maiden with hair of the colour of the beech mast, and skin tinted with the clear green of the first leaves of spring.  The life of each was bound up with that of her own tree; in the spring the spirits came  forth singing and rejoicing in their new life; in the heat of the summer and as autumn drew on they grew sad and wistful; and when the storms of winter drove up the ravine and rattled and roared among the bare branches the hamadryads cowered and shivered inside the trees, and longed for the time when spring should once more call forth in the glory of their resurrection.

Human beings had never been near this glade, for the ravine was barren and gave no opportunity for mortals to live there. Many miles away the rushing torrent grew to a great river with villages and towns on its banks, but since the beginning of time no human foot had trodden the soil of the beech glade.

One evening however, just as winter was sullenly giving place to the impatient stirrings of spring-time, when the hama­dryads were waking from their winter sleep and quivering to burst their prison bars and dance forth once more - a woman came slowly and wearily up the rugged hillside, and laid herself down in the beech glade to die. The tender-hearted hamadryads, seeing her there, braved the still chilly breath of the departing winter and the unknown terrors of the dark – for hama-dyrads never come except in the sunlight – and stayed with her, till the stars went out one by one as the courier of the sun snuffled them with his pink-tipped fingers. Then the dawn wind carried the woman away to the lands of forgetfulness, and the eldest hama-dryad took the new born babe and brought it up as her own daughter.  The hama-dryads had never before seen a child, for they do not live as mortals do, and the baby was an endless source of interest and delight to them. They called her Neon, and she lived in the glade with them as one of themselves.

In this way nearly twenty years passed Neon was now a full grown maiden, slender and lovely; she had always looked on herself as a hama-dryad, for living with them, eating only fruit as they did and playing in the sunshine and clear air had given her the same curious transparency of body, the same lightness of limb, and the same airy movements as theirs. Her Hair, however, was golden instead of nut brown, and although she did not know it, her eyes were blue, and the red human blood in her veins gave her cheeks the pink of the wild rose.  This showed clearly that she was no hama-dryad, for their eyes are the green of the lichen on the beech trunks, and that which flows in their veins is not blood, but the thin green chlorophyll of the leaves.

Neon had the human spirit of adventure and curiosity; she would climb up to the shoulder of the hill,. where the sun beat down fiercely upon her bare white body, and make friends with the rabbits and little wild creatures of the heather; she would make her way up to the crags of rock and play with the wild goats, leaping from boulder to boulder as fearless and sure-footed as they. She would often spend a whole night far up the mountains with the stars, and it was only on these occasions that she felt she was in some way different from. her playfellows the hama-dryads. The stars seemed to speak to something deep down within her, telling of wonderful possibilities as yet unknown and only vaguely imagined, of great things to be learnt and seen and experienced, of life and the fullness of life - life such as the poor soulless hama-dryads could never know.  And she would stay on the mountain top to watch the sun rise over the billows of mist in the valleys below, and with the coming of the sun all the star-engendered thoughts would go, and. she would dance down to the beech glade again, her hair circled with anemones and sparkling with dew, for another day of care-free merrymaking with the hama-dryads.

On the far side of the ravine, rocky and forbidding, where grew no trees and little else but small and scanty shrubs was a cave, or rather a series of caves.  The entrance was so small that only one man could enter at a time, but once inside, the cave was seen to be a  vast chamber hewn in the cold rook with openings all round leading to innumerable chambers in the hillside and forming an incomprehensible labyrinth. These huge chambers were fitted up as laboratories for this was the home of the great God Aesculapius.  Here he lived in the form of an enormous python, working and studying and experimenting, and accumulating such store of wisdom as the physicians of all the ages have hardly yet discovered. Now he was carrying out his last and grandest experiment for the healing of mankind.  In the past he had often assumed human form and gone down to the villages and towns preaching health and curing all those that were suffering; but there was no love for human beings in his heart. He healed them because as the god of healing he must, but he had not the love and patience to teach mortals how to heal themselves. 

So, as an experiment – Aesculapius and his followers are ever experimenters – he took a baby boy that he had found, to live with him, in the mountains, and there he instructed him in all the branches of every science that is in any way connected with healing . The boy he called Argon, and as he grew up Argon and as he grew up Aesculapius trained him to the knowledge that his mission in life, the whole reason for his existence, was that he should go from town to town setting up colleges where men should be trained in all the sciences of healing that he had himself learned.

The master would often assume human form, and, with his pupil, travel through the country, teaching him the practical side of his studies; and Argon’s heart would be torn with pity and sorrow for the suffering and ignorance be saw all round him.  Indeed so great was Argon’s love for his fellow creatures that it gave him power beyond even that of Aesculapius; and Aesculapius seeing this was satisfied with his experiment, for he knew that love, and love alone, is the secret of success in the fight with pain and disease. He had failed, for, being an immortal, he could not feel for human sufferings; but Argon was human, and united with his love and fellow feeling, was the wisdom and knowledge that he was ­learning from the god.

Part of Argon’s work was to go out every day and collect the herbs and flowers, from which Aesculapius, taught him to prepare drugs and medicines.  

One day he bad wandered far afield in search of a rare plant, and waded across the torrent at the bottom of the ravine and ascended the other side. He had often done so before, but had never climbed the steep slope beyond; now however, it occurred to him to search in the beech grove which he had so often looked at in the distance, from the entrance to the cavern on the opposite side of the ravine.  From the beech grove to the cavern mouth might have been three or four miles as the crow flies, but it was a long and arduous way, first to the bottom of the ravine then up the other side, and Argon was hot and weary by the time he approached the beech grove.  The fresh green and the cool shade were inviting to him, and he quickened his steps up the last half mile of his climb.  Neon and the hama-dryads were playing in their usual light-hearted manner among the trees; squirrels and rabbits were skipping about, an flock of finches of all kinds were joining in the fun. Neon, with a. squirrel on each shoulder, and a rabbit in her arms was dancing back and forth, while the hama-dryads, holding hands in a line, were dancing to met her, after the manner of children playing ‘Nuts and May’.

At the first sound of Argon’s approach the hama-dryads disappeared into their trees like a puff of smoke, the birds, rabbits and squirrels fled and before Neon realised what was happening she was alone. She did not know what had caused the alarm and her first instinct was to hide as her companions had done; but her human curiosity was too strong, and instead she crept forward to the edge of the terrace and peeped between the trees. She saw nothing, for Argon had come into the grove further down, and at the sound of his footsteps behind her she swung round, startled, and they met face to face. Argon gasped; he had of course seen  many girls before, but never one like this. Standing between the dark tree trunks with the blue distance behind her and the sunlight pouring upon her golden hair and white, almost transparent body, she looked like the spirit of happiness, beauty and spring. She was as Eve before the fall.

Neon had never seen a man, not even another human being, and  she was agog with interest. Half afraid, yet most curious, she drew nearer to him, then stretched out one finger and touched his arm.  She sprang back with a  little cry, for the hard firm muscles were very different from the soft cool weak hands of the hama-dryads.

“What are you?”, she whispered now thoroughly frightened, but determined to stand her ground.

“I am Argon”, he replied simply.  “Who are you?”

The deep gentle voice, so different from the reedy voices of the hama-dryads, sent a thrill through Neon, such as she had never felt before. The clear steady eyes fixed on her brought back to her the thoughts that the stars inspired; it was the human nature, so undeveloped as to be almost non-existent, awakening at last. As she felt his eyes upon her a sudden shock passed through her, so agonising that she cried aloud. Then a wave of shame and terror swept her; and Neon. who had never known shame or tears in all her life flung herself down on the grass in an agony of sobs &the full tide of knowledge beat upon her. She was a human woman and no semi-spirit; never again could she dance light-heartedly with the hama-dryads; she knew now that she was not one of them, and as she lay sobbing and trembling in the grass, the human nature, so long suppressed, came into its own.

Argon, with his wonderful gift of sympathy, knew what she was suffering.  He took off his cloak and threw it over her, then went and sat down a little way off, with his back towards her. Presently, Neon raised her face from the grass, and sat up, wrapping. the cloak about her. Hearing her move, Argon rose and came towards her, and as she looked at his strong gentle face and wise steadfast eyes, Neon realised that there might be compensations in being human after all.  His strength and solidity were so new and wonderful to her, after the ethereal fragility of the hama-dryads; and the keenness and understanding kindliness of his face roused in her a passion of adoration which was full recompense for the aerial pleasures of her former life.

They sat down side by side and soon had told each other the whole of their life history.. Argon dwelt long and eagerly on the wonderful work that lay before him, and Neon listened, not understanding one half of what he said, but happy in listening to his voice . Neon knew all about the plants that grew in the neighbourhood, and when Argon told her what it  was that he was seeking she led him at once to a part of the glade where he could gather all that he required. They had so much to say to each other that the sun was beginning to sink before Argon realised that his master would be watching for him, and would be angry if he were late.

“Shall I find you here when I come tomorrow?”, he asked eagerly, as, his arms full of herbs, he prepared to leave the beech glade.

“I live here”, replied Neon; “I have no other home; if you come tomorrow I will show you where more herbs are to be found.

Each day after this found Argon making his way to the beech grove. Neon was not always there to meet him however; sometimes she would be far up the mountain and would come at his call, skipping and dancing over the rocks like some big butterfly; with Argon’s cloak, which she had kept and always wore, when he was near, flying around her.  At other times he would hear her soft call, and find her among the clumps of thyme with a family of baby rabbits in her arms, and the mother rabbit squatting at her feet. The wild creatures soon grew as tame with Argon as they were with Neon, and he would tend their little ailments with a gentleness and skill that made him beloved by all.

So passed many blissful days. 

But as time went on Aesculapius began to notice that a great deal more time was spent on the hillsides than was warranted by the quantity of herbs that Argon brought back with him. Argon was faithful as ever to his studies, but all his spare time was spent away from. the cave, and though he always bought back as many herbs as were needed, Aesculapius knew that herb gathering did not occupy his whole time.

So one day he f allowed Argon from the cave, down the rocky slope,. across the river, and up the other side of the ravine. On nearing the beech glade Argon gave a long clear call, which was answered from among the trees, and present. Neon’s lovely little figure came skipping along, wrapped in what Aesculapius recognised as Argon’s cloak. 

Aesculapius watched them disappear together up the path to the beech glade, then, moving with speed that only a. python can attain, he flashed past them hidden in the bushes; and when they arrived at the glade they saw him – monstrous huge and horrible – coiled round a sapling which bent and swayed beneath his weight.

They both stopped short, Neon with a little cry of terror cowering in Argon’s arms and Argon’s heart gave a leap or horror as be realised what he had done.  For all his life his master had forbidden him to look at or touch a woman, except in his professional capacity, on pain of death. His life had been dedicated to the great work for which he had been chosen, and Aesculapius had impressed this upon him ever since he could remember. The god knew  that the work was so great that it could only be performed by one who could give up his whole heart and soul to it, who could make it his one object and interest, and who could have no other attractions apart from it. For more than twenty years he had been successful, Argon had never shown any interest in any woman as such, though his great love for all his fellow creatures had made him beloved by more than he had any idea of. Single-hearted be had studied and striven for the good of mankind, and to please his master; and now, when a few more years of training would have seen him fitted to set forth on his great mission, this thing had come.

The huge python puffed himself out with fury and keenest disappointment, and Argon. Realising everything, could only stand speechless. For a long time they remained thus, Argon holding Neon in his arms, ready for her sake to brave to wrath of his terrible master; and the python, swaying and quivering on the beech sapling, with his great flat head hovering on a level with his pupil’s face, and the cold agate eyes searching his soul.

Presently, with a long hiss pent up fury, he spoke, and the cold quiet words were more terrible than any show of anger could have been.

“So, this is the end of all my training, Oh most faithless Argon!  For this have I instructed you in all the secrets of my wisdom!  From your earliest years have I warned you; from your earliest years have you been dedicated body and soul to the great work for which I chose you; and from your earliest years you have known the punishment you have now brought upon yourself. Now, through your folly and disobedience, you have held back the saving knowledge from the human race for many thousands of years; for never again will I impart my knowledge to another mortal. In the centuries to come men will pray to me and offer sacrifices to invoke my aid; but henceforth they may pray in vain, they may struggle and suffer in their blindness, and many thousands of years shall pass before they attain, by devious and painful ways, to the height of knowledge that I have imparted to you. And that knowledge which might have given you the greatest happiness in life, shall give you the greatest torment in death. For in the underworld you shall retain your knowledge of healing, and your loving sympathy for the suffering of others; but you will have no power either to use or impart that knowledge. As the souls step down to those gloomy realms with their dying groans of agony still upon their lips, you shall feel for them then as you have done here; yet with the knowledge of healing you shall have no power to heal.  The souls will crowd around you and beg and plead that you should return to earth, and impart to .their loved ones, if only in their dreams, the knowledge that would save them from the same sufferings. And it will break your heart to refuse.  You will never become callous but each fresh tale of suffering will wring your heart as keenly as the first.  That shall be your punishment and it shall last for ever.”


Argon’s face whitened as this terrible sentence was pronounced upon him; he did not think of himself – well though he knew what torment it would be – but of the myriads of his fellow creatures that he had condemned to a. life of unrelieved misery. He felt that the burden of all their sufferings had descended upon him, and it was a dead weight, dragging him down.

Neon, seeing his stricken face, threw her arms around his neck, and turned to plead with the agate eyed deity. But he cut her short:

“And as for you”, he cried, puffing himself out once more, and shifting so that his head swayed in mid-air close to her face,


“You little empty headed butterfly, you who have ruined my greatest and finest work, it is through you that all this has come. You shall share in this punishment – listen. You shall go down with Argon to the underworld, and there you shall wander till mankind have by their own efforts attained the knowledge that Argon now possesses. Many thousands of years shall pass, but when that time has come you shall go back on earth again; and then you shall be my slave whether you know it or not;  and in my service only shall you work out your soul’s salvation. You have never done a day’s work in your life, but then you shall study all day and far into the night; you have never soiled your hands, but then you shall have them burnt with acids and stained with evil-smelling drugs; your pink and white cheeks shall grow pale with work in the foul atmosphere of a great city; your head and body will ache with long hours of work, and your spirit will chafe against the dull routine, and weary for the Joyous adventures of your dreams.  But”


        and here the stony eyes grew gentle for a moment –


“in my service, hard though it  will be, you shall work out your soul’s salvation and your heart shall know a contentment that shall carry you through all.”


As this punishment was pronounced upon Neon. Argon, forgetting his own hard fate, sprang forward to plead for mercy.  Before he could speak,  the god, with lightening speed, flung the heavy coils of his body from the swaying sapling upon Argon’s shoulders, crushing him and Neon with the weight.

As the folds tightened around them Argon caught his breath and gasped out his last plea.

“Oh, master, for the sake of the years that I spent in faithful service to you, grant that when Neon is sent back to earth, I too may be permitted to return and find her, so that we may work our soul’s salvation together.”


The strangling grip relaxed for a moment.

“For the sake of the years that you spent in faithful service to me, your prayer is granted. When Neon returns to earth you too shall return; you will each pass through many trials and sorrows, but you shall meet at last, and in the joy of your meeting, all the sorrows of the past shall be forgotten.”


The coils drew tighter and ever tighter round them, crushing the life out of them. It grew darker and darker, the cold breath of the underworld rushed singing in their ears as Argon and Neon passed together to .face the centuries of punishment that their love had, in all innocence, brought upon them.

Nineteen centuries had passed since the birth of the Healer that was greater than Aesculapius. The God of healing, who could not be the true healer because he could not love, had abdicated before Him who heals because He loves. The followers of the True Healer had, little by little, and because of the love they bore their suffering brethren, attained by devious and painful ways, even  as Aesculapius had foretold, to the heights of knowledge which he had imparted to Argon in the dim centuries when mankind was young.

And when the right time had come, Neon was released from her sojourn in the shadow land, and sent back to earth to work out her soul’s salvation. Though so long a time had elapsed that she hardly remembered that she had been on earth before, yet from her earliest years she knew that Aesculapius had claimed her.  As a baby she unconsciously twisted her baptismal name into as close an imitation as possible of her ancient name, and as she grew older, try as she would to drop it, the name clung  to her. 

For many years she tried to evade the servitude that was laid upon her, and her only reward was sorrow and unhappiness of spirit.  Then the scales fell from her eyes, she recognised and accepted the yoke of Aesculapius, and in his service among the tincture bottles and the ointment jars, her heart has known a contentment. that it never knew before.

And with the recognition of her slavery has come the knowledge that somewhere on this earth is Argon, watching and waiting for her.  Many men pass before her eyes, but they have no interest for her. As they pass she looks keenly at each, but Argon has not come yet.. When he comes the recognition will be mutual, and such will be the joy of that meeting that Neon is content to wait till death if need be, rather than risk losing Argon when he comes for her.