In the darkest hour before the dawn, Diana floated away from her Garden Tower and came down between the Lions on the Library Steps.
At first, she did not know they were Lions. She thought they were Cats, and so she was afraid. For she was very lightly clad; and (except in Egypt) Cats are terrible to undomesticated goddesses. Diana shivered as she strung her bow for defense. She felt that she was divine, but she knew that she had cold feet.
In truth, the Library Steps were wet and glistening, for there had been a shower after midnight. But now the gibbous moon was giving a silent imitation of an arc-light high in the western heaven. Her beams silver-plated the weird architecture of the shrines of Commerce which face the great Temple dedicated to the Three Muses of New York--Astor, Lenox, and Tilden.
But on the awful animals guarding the steps the light was florid, like a flush of sunburn discovered by the ablution of a warranted complexion cream. They were wonderfully pink, and Diana hastened to draw an arrow from her quiver, for it seemed to her as if her feline neighbors were beginning to glow with rage.
"Do not shoot," said the ruddier one; "we are not angry, we are only blushing." And he glanced at her costume.
Diana was astonished to hear a masculine voice utter such a modest sentiment. But being a woman, she knew that the first word does not count.
"Cats never blush," she answered boldly, "no matter how big they are."
"But we are not Cats," they cried, ramping suddenly like crests on a millionaire's note-paper. "We are Lions!"
Diana smiled at this, for now she felt safe, remembering that when a male begins to boast he is not dangerous.
"Roar a little for me, please," she said, laying down her unconcealed weapon.
"Impossible," said the Northern Lion, "a city ordinance forbids unnecessary noise."
"Nonsense!" interrupted the Southern Lion. "Who would not break a law to oblige a lady?"
"Let us compromise," said the Northern Lion, "and give her our reproduction of an automobile horn."
"No," said the Southern Lion, "we will give her our automatic record of a Book-Advertisement; it is louder."
Then Diana trembled, indeed. But she bravely continued smiling, and said: "Thank you a thousand times for doing it once! And now please tell me what kind of Lions you are."
"Literary Lions," was their prompt and unanimous reply.
"Ah," she cried, clapping her hands with a charming gesture, "how glad I am to meet you! I have been in New York more than twenty years and never seen any one like you before! Come and sit beside me and talk."
The Lions looked at each other rather sheepishly, and glanced up and down the street, as if fearing the approach of a city ordinance. But there was no one in sight except Diana, so they shook their literary locks into a becoming disorder and sat on the steps with her, purring gently.
"Now tell me," she said, "who you are."
If she had been less beautiful they would have resented this. But, as it was, they looked sorry, and asked her if she had never read "Who's Who in America"? She shook her head, and admitted that she had not read it all through.
"Well," said her neighbor on the south, "this is rather an offhand _soiree,_ and we may as well cut out proper names. But I will put you wise to the fact that I am the Magazine Lion. I got away from Roosevelt in Africa. He called me 'Mucky,' and I made tracks. Here he cannot hurt me, for they will never let that man do anything in good old New York, not even touch a Tiger."
"And I," said her neighbor on the north, "I am the Academic Lion, of whom you must have heard. My character is noted for its concealed sweetness, and my style leaves nothing to be hoped for. I am literally a man of letters, for I have seventeen degrees. Usually I look literary-lean and nobly dissatisfied, but yesterday I swallowed a British Female Novelist by accident, and that accounts for my inartistic air of cheerfulness. I won my splendid reputation by telling other Lions how they ought to have done their little tricks. But now, tired of that, I have gone into politics. This is my first public office."
Diana was somewhat confused and benumbed by these personally conducted biographies, but she was too well-bred not to appear interested.
"How lovely," she murmured, "to sit between two such Great Personages! I wonder what brought poor little Me to such an honor. And, by the way, how do you happen to be just here? What is this beautiful building behind you? Is it your Palace?"
"It is a Library," said the Academic Lion, with a superior tone.
"The biggest book-heap in America," said the Magazine Lion in his vivid way. "We have them all beaten to a finish--except the old junk-shop down in Washington."
"You forget Boston," said the Academic Lion.
"Who wouldn't?" growled the Magazine Lion.
"Do you mean to tell me," asked Diana, with her most engaging and sprightly air, "that this splendid place is a Library, all full of books, and that you are its most prominent figures, its figureheads, so to speak? How interesting! I have travelled a great deal--under the name of Pasht or Bast, in Egypt, where the Cats liked me; and under the name of Artemis in Greece; and under my own name in Italy. Believe me, I have seen all things that the moon shines upon. But I do not remember having seen Lions on a Library before. How original! How appropriate! How suggestive! But what does it suggest? What are you here for?"
"For educational purposes," said the Academic Lion.
"To catch the eye," said the Magazine Lion, "same as head-lines in a newspaper."
"I see," exclaimed Diana. "You are here to keep the people from getting at the books? How modern!"
This remark made the Academic Lion look like a Sphinx, as if he knew something but did not want to tell. But the Magazine Lion was distinctly flattered.
"Right you are," said he cheerfully, "or next door to it. We don't propose to keep the people out, only the authors. Why, when this place was publicly opened there was not a single author in the exhibit, except John Bigelow."
"Why did you not keep him out?" asked Diana.
"We were not on the spot, then," said the Lion. "Besides, there are some things that even a Lion does not dare to do."
"But I do not understand," said Diana, "precisely why authors should be kept away from a library."
The Magazine Lion laughed. "Silly little thing!" he said, with a fascinating tone of virile condescension. "An author's business is to write books, not to read them. If he reads, he grows intelligent and thoughtful and careful about his work. Those old books spoil him for the modern market. But if he just goes ahead and writes whatever comes into his head, he can do it with a bang, and everybody sits up and pays attention. That's the only way to be original. See?"
"Excuse me," broke in the Academic Lion, "but you go too far, brother. Authors should be encouraged to read, but only under critical guidance and professorial direction. Otherwise they will not be able to classify the books, and tabulate their writers, and know which ones to admire and praise. How can you expect a mere author to comprehend the faulty method of Shakespeare, or the ethical commonplaceness of Dickens and Thackeray, or the vital Ibsenism of Bernard Shaw and the other near-Ibsens, without assistance?"
"But the other people," asked Diana, "what is going to happen to them if you let them go in free and browse among the books?"
"They are less important," answered the Academic Lion. "Besides we expect soon to establish a cranial, neurological, and psychopathic examination which will determine the subliminal, temperamental needs of every applicant. Then we classify the readers in groups, and the books in lists, and the whole thing works with automatic precision."
"And I am going to make the book-lists!" said the Magazine Lion, ecstatically wagging his tail, and half-unconsciously putting his paw around the lady's waist in a spirit of pure comradeship.
But she gently slipped away, stood up, and gracefully covered a yawn with her hand.
"I am ever so much obliged to you Literary Lions for not eating me," said she. "Probably I should have disagreed with you even more than your conversation has with me. I am quite sleepy. And the moon has almost disappeared. I must be going where I can bid it good night."
So Diana rose, with shining limbs, above the housetops, and vanished toward her Garden Tower. The Lions looked disconcerted. "Old-fashioned, Victorian prude!" said one, "Brazen hussy!" said the other. And they climbed back on their Pedestals, resuming their supercilious expression. There I suppose they will stay, no matter what Diana may think of them.