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´╗┐Title: Glasses
Author: James, Henry, 1843-1916
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Glasses" ***

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Transcribed from the 1916 Martin Secker edition by David Price, email


GLASSES


CHAPTER I


Yes indeed, I say to myself, pen in hand, I can keep hold of the thread
and let it lead me back to the first impression.  The little story is all
there, I can touch it from point to point; for the thread, as I call it,
is a row of coloured beads on a string.  None of the beads are missing--at
least I think they're not: that's exactly what I shall amuse myself with
finding out.

I had been all summer working hard in town and then had gone down to
Folkestone for a blow.  Art was long, I felt, and my holiday short; my
mother was settled at Folkestone, and I paid her a visit when I could.  I
remember how on this occasion, after weeks in my stuffy studio with my
nose on my palette, I sniffed up the clean salt air and cooled my eyes
with the purple sea.  The place was full of lodgings, and the lodgings
were at that season full of people, people who had nothing to do but to
stare at one another on the great flat down.  There were thousands of
little chairs and almost as many little Jews; and there was music in an
open rotunda, over which the little Jews wagged their big noses.  We all
strolled to and fro and took pennyworths of rest; the long, level cliff-
top, edged in places with its iron rail, might have been the deck of a
huge crowded ship.  There were old folks in Bath chairs, and there was
one dear chair, creeping to its last full stop, by the side of which I
always walked.  There was in fine weather the coast of France to look at,
and there were the usual things to say about it; there was also in every
state of the atmosphere our friend Mrs. Meldrum, a subject of remark not
less inveterate.  The widow of an officer in the Engineers, she had
settled, like many members of the martial miscellany, well within sight
of the hereditary enemy, who however had left her leisure to form in
spite of the difference of their years a close alliance with my mother.
She was the heartiest, the keenest, the ugliest of women, the least
apologetic, the least morbid in her misfortune.  She carried it high
aloft with loud sounds and free gestures, made it flutter in the breeze
as if it had been the flag of her country.  It consisted mainly of a big
red face, indescribably out of drawing, from which she glared at you
through gold-rimmed aids to vision, optic circles of such diameter and so
frequently displaced that some one had vividly spoken of her as
flattering her nose against the glass of her spectacles.  She was
extraordinarily near-sighted, and whatever they did to other objects they
magnified immensely the kind eyes behind them.  Blest conveniences they
were, in their hideous, honest strength--they showed the good lady
everything in the world but her own queerness.  This element was enhanced
by wild braveries of dress, reckless charges of colour and stubborn
resistances of cut, wondrous encounters in which the art of the toilet
seemed to lay down its life.  She had the tread of a grenadier and the
voice of an angel.

In the course of a walk with her the day after my arrival I found myself
grabbing her arm with sudden and undue familiarity.  I had been struck by
the beauty of a face that approached us and I was still more affected
when I saw the face, at the sight of my companion, open like a window
thrown wide.  A smile fluttered out of it an brightly as a drapery
dropped from a sill--a drapery shaken there in the sun by a young lady
flanked by two young men, a wonderful young lady who, as we drew nearer,
rushed up to Mrs. Meldrum with arms flourished for an embrace.  My
immediate impression of her had been that she was dressed in mourning,
but during the few moments she stood talking with our friend I made more
discoveries.  The figure from the neck down was meagre, the stature
insignificant, but the desire to please towered high, as well as the air
of infallibly knowing how and of never, never missing it.  This was a
little person whom I would have made a high bid for a good chance to
paint.  The head, the features, the colour, the whole facial oval and
radiance had a wonderful purity; the deep grey eyes--the most agreeable,
I thought, that I had ever seen--brushed with a kind of winglike grace
every object they encountered.  Their possessor was just back from
Boulogne, where she had spent a week with dear Mrs. Floyd-Taylor: this
accounted for the effusiveness of her reunion with dear Mrs. Meldrum.  Her
black garments were of the freshest and daintiest; she suggested a pink-
and-white wreath at a showy funeral.  She confounded us for three minutes
with her presence; she was a beauty of the great conscious public
responsible order.  The young men, her companions, gazed at her and
grinned: I could see there were very few moments of the day at which
young men, these or others, would not be so occupied.  The people who
approached took leave of their manners; every one seemed to linger and
gape.  When she brought her face close to Mrs. Meldrum's--and she
appeared to be always bringing it close to somebody's--it was a marvel
that objects so dissimilar should express the same general identity, the
unmistakable character of the English gentlewoman.  Mrs. Meldrum
sustained the comparison with her usual courage, but I wondered why she
didn't introduce me: I should have had no objection to the bringing of
such a face close to mine.  However, by the time the young lady moved on
with her escort she herself bequeathed me a sense that some such
_rapprochement_ might still occur.  Was this by reason of the general
frequency of encounters at Folkestone, or by reason of a subtle
acknowledgment that she contrived to make of the rights, on the part of
others, that such beauty as hers created?  I was in a position to answer
that question after Mrs. Meldrum had answered a few of mine.



CHAPTER II


Flora Saunt, the only daughter of an old soldier, had lost both her
parents, her mother within a few months.  Mrs. Meldrum had known them,
disapproved of them, considerably avoided them: she had watched the girl,
off and on, from her early childhood.  Flora, just twenty, was
extraordinarily alone in the world--so alone that she had no natural
chaperon, no one to stay with but a mercenary stranger, Mrs. Hammond
Synge, the sister-in-law of one of the young men I had just seen.  She
had lots of friends, but none of them nice: she kept picking up
impossible people.  The Floyd-Taylors, with whom she had been at
Boulogne, were simply horrid.  The Hammond Synges were perhaps not so
vulgar, but they had no conscience in their dealings with her.

"She knows what I think of them," said Mrs. Meldrum, "and indeed she
knows what I think of most things."

"She shares that privilege with most of your friends!" I replied
laughing.

"No doubt; but possibly to some of my friends it makes a little
difference.  That girl doesn't care a button.  She knows best of all what
I think of Flora Saunt."

"And what may your opinion be?"

"Why, that she's not worth troubling about--an idiot too abysmal."

"Doesn't she care for that?"

"Just enough, as you saw, to hug me till I cry out.  She's too pleased
with herself for anything else to matter."

"Surely, my dear friend," I rejoined, "she has a good deal to be pleased
with!"

"So every one tells her, and so you would have told her if I had given
you the chance.  However, that doesn't signify either, for her vanity is
beyond all making or mending.  She believes in herself, and she's
welcome, after all, poor dear, having only herself to look to.  I've
seldom met a young woman more completely free to be silly.  She has a
clear course--she'll make a showy finish."

"Well," I replied, "as she probably will reduce many persons to the same
degraded state, her partaking of it won't stand out so much."

"If you mean that the world's full of twaddlers I quite agree with you!"
cried Mrs. Meldrum, trumpeting her laugh half across the Channel.

I had after this to consider a little what she would call my mother's
son, but I didn't let it prevent me from insisting on her making me
acquainted with Flora Saunt; indeed I took the bull by the horns, urging
that she had drawn the portrait of a nature which common charity now
demanded of her to put into relation with a character really fine.  Such
a frail creature was just an object of pity.  This contention on my part
had at first of course been jocular; but strange to say it was quite the
ground I found myself taking with regard to our young lady after I had
begun to know her.  I couldn't have said what I felt about her except
that she was undefended; from the first of my sitting with her there
after dinner, under the stars--that was a week at Folkestone of balmy
nights and muffled tides and crowded chairs--I became aware both that
protection was wholly absent from her life and that she was wholly
indifferent to its absence.  The odd thing was that she was not
appealing: she was abjectly, divinely conceited, absurdly fantastically
pleased.  Her beauty was as yet all the world to her, a world she had
plenty to do to live in.  Mrs. Meldrum told me more about her, and there
was nothing that, as the centre of a group of giggling, nudging
spectators, Flora wasn't ready to tell about herself.  She held her
little court in the crowd, upon the grass, playing her light over Jews
and Gentiles, completely at ease in all promiscuities.  It was an effect
of these things that from the very first, with every one listening, I
could mention that my main business with her would be just to have a go
at her head and to arrange in that view for an early sitting.  It would
have been as impossible, I think, to be impertinent to her as it would
have been to throw a stone at a plate-glass window; so any talk that went
forward on the basis of her loveliness was the most natural thing in the
world and immediately became the most general and sociable.  It was when
I saw all this that I judged how, though it was the last thing she asked
for, what one would ever most have at her service was a curious
compassion.  That sentiment was coloured by the vision of the dire
exposure of a being whom vanity had put so off her guard.  Hers was the
only vanity I have ever known that made its possessor superlatively soft.
Mrs. Meldrum's further information contributed moreover to these
indulgences--her account of the girl's neglected childhood and queer
continental relegations, with straying squabbling Monte-Carlo-haunting
parents; the more invidious picture, above all, of her pecuniary
arrangement, still in force, with the Hammond Synges, who really, though
they never took her out--practically she went out alone--had their hands
half the time in her pocket.  She had to pay for everything, down to her
share of the wine-bills and the horses' fodder, down to Bertie Hammond
Synge's fare in the "underground" when he went to the City for her.  She
had been left with just money enough to turn her head; and it hadn't even
been put in trust, nothing prudent or proper had been done with it.  She
could spend her capital, and at the rate she was going, expensive,
extravagant and with a swarm of parasites to help, it certainly wouldn't
last very long.

"Couldn't _you_ perhaps take her, independent, unencumbered as you are?"
I asked of Mrs. Meldrum.  "You're probably, with one exception, the
sanest person she knows, and you at least wouldn't scandalously fleece
her."

"How do you know what I wouldn't do?" my humorous friend demanded.  "Of
course I've thought how I can help her--it has kept me awake at night.
But doing it's impossible; she'll take nothing from me.  You know what
she does--she hugs me and runs away.  She has an instinct about me and
feels that I've one about her.  And then she dislikes me for another
reason that I'm not quite clear about, but that I'm well aware of and
that I shall find out some day.  So far as her settling with me goes it
would be impossible moreover here; she wants naturally enough a much
wider field.  She must live in London--her game is there.  So she takes
the line of adoring me, of saying she can never forget that I was devoted
to her mother--which I wouldn't for the world have been--and of giving me
a wide berth.  I think she positively dislikes to look at me.  It's all
right; there's no obligation; though people in general can't take their
eyes off me."

"I see that at this moment," I replied.  "But what does it matter where
or how, for the present, she lives?  She'll marry infallibly, marry
early, and everything then will change."

"Whom will she marry?" my companion gloomily asked.

"Any one she likes.  She's so abnormally pretty that she can do anything.
She'll fascinate some nabob or some prince."

"She'll fascinate him first and bore him afterwards.  Moreover she's not
so pretty as you make her out; she hasn't a scrap of a figure."

"No doubt, but one doesn't in the least miss it."

"Not now," said Mrs. Meldrum, "but one will when she's older and when
everything will have to count."

"When she's older she'll count as a princess, so it won't matter."

"She has other drawbacks," my companion went on.  "Those wonderful eyes
are good for nothing but to roll about like sugar-balls--which they
greatly resemble--in a child's mouth.  She can't use them."

"Use them?  Why, she does nothing else."

"To make fools of young men, but not to read or write, not to do any sort
of work.  She never opens a book, and her maid writes her notes.  You'll
say that those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.  Of
course I know that if I didn't wear my goggles I shouldn't be good for
much."

"Do you mean that Miss Saunt ought to sport such things?" I exclaimed
with more horror than I meant to show.

"I don't prescribe for her; I don't know that they're what she requires."

"What's the matter with her eyes?" I asked after a moment.

"I don't exactly know; but I heard from her mother years ago that even as
a child they had had for a while to put her into spectacles and that
though she hated them and had been in a fury of disgust, she would always
have to be extremely careful.  I'm sure I hope she is!"

I echoed the hope, but I remember well the impression this made upon
me--my immediate pang of resentment, a disgust almost equal to Flora's
own.  I felt as if a great rare sapphire had split in my hand.



CHAPTER III


This conversation occurred the night before I went back to town.  I
settled on the morrow to take a late train, so that I had still my
morning to spend at Folkestone, where during the greater part of it I was
out with my mother.  Every one in the place was as usual out with some
one else, and even had I been free to go and take leave of her I should
have been sure that Flora Saunt would not be at home.  Just where she was
I presently discovered: she was at the far end of the cliff, the point at
which it overhangs the pretty view of Sandgate and Hythe.  Her back,
however, was turned to this attraction; it rested with the aid of her
elbows, thrust slightly behind her so that her scanty little shoulders
were raised toward her ears, on the high rail that inclosed the down.  Two
gentlemen stood before her whose faces we couldn't see but who even as
observed from the rear were visibly absorbed in the charming figure-piece
submitted to them.  I was freshly struck with the fact that this meagre
and defective little person, with the cock of her hat and the flutter of
her crape, with her eternal idleness, her eternal happiness, her absence
of moods and mysteries and the pretty presentation of her feet, which
especially now in the supported slope of her posture occupied with their
imperceptibility so much of the foreground--I was reminded anew, I say,
how our young lady dazzled by some art that the enumeration of her merits
didn't explain and that the mention of her lapses didn't affect.  Where
she was amiss nothing counted, and where she was right everything did.  I
say she was wanting in mystery, but that after all was her secret.  This
happened to be my first chance of introducing her to my mother, who had
not much left in life but the quiet look from under the hood of her chair
at the things which, when she should have quitted those she loved, she
could still trust to make the world good for them.  I wondered an instant
how much she might be moved to trust Flora Saunt, and then while the
chair stood still and she waited I went over and asked the girl to come
and speak to her.  In this way I saw that if one of Flora's attendants
was the inevitable young Hammond Synge, master of ceremonies of her
regular court, always offering the use of a telescope and accepting that
of a cigar, the other was a personage I had not yet encountered, a small
pale youth in showy knickerbockers, whose eyebrows and nose and the glued
points of whose little moustache were extraordinarily uplifted and
sustained.  I remember taking him at first for a foreigner and for
something of a pretender: I scarce know why unless because of the motive
I felt in the stare he fixed on me when I asked Miss Saunt to come away.
He struck me a little as a young man practising the social art of
impertinence; but it didn't matter, for Flora came away with alacrity,
bringing all her prettiness and pleasure and gliding over the grass in
that rustle of delicate mourning which made the endless variety of her
garments, as a painter could take heed, strike one always as the same
obscure elegance.  She seated herself on the floor of my mother's chair,
a little too much on her right instep as I afterwards gathered, caressing
her still hand, smiling up into her cold face, commending and approving
her without a reserve and without a doubt.  She told her immediately, as
if it were something for her to hold on by, that she was soon to sit to
me for a "likeness," and these words gave me a chance to enquire if it
would be the fate of the picture, should I finish it, to be presented to
the young man in the knickerbockers.  Her lips, at this, parted in a
stare; her eyes darkened to the purple of one of the shadow-patches on
the sea.  She showed for the passing instant the face of some splendid
tragic mask, and I remembered for the inconsequence of it what Mrs.
Meldrum had said about her sight.  I had derived from this lady a
worrying impulse to catechise her, but that didn't seem exactly kind; so
I substituted another question, inquiring who the pretty young man in
knickerbockers might happen to be.

"Oh a gentleman I met at Boulogne.  He has come over to see me."  After a
moment she added: "Lord Iffield."

I had never heard of Lord Iffield, but her mention of his having been at
Boulogne helped me to give him a niche.  Mrs. Meldrum had incidentally
thrown a certain light on the manners of Mrs. Floyd-Taylor, Flora's
recent hostess in that charming town, a lady who, it appeared, had a
special vocation for helping rich young men to find a use for their
leisure.  She had always one or other in hand and had apparently on this
occasion pointed her lesson at the rare creature on the opposite coast.  I
had a vague idea that Boulogne was not a resort of the world's envied; at
the same time there might very well have been a strong attraction there
even for one of the darlings of fortune.  I could perfectly understand in
any case that such a darling should be drawn to Folkestone by Flora
Saunt.  But it was not in truth of these things I was thinking; what was
uppermost in my mind was a matter which, though it had no sort of
keeping, insisted just then on coming out.

"Is it true, Miss Saunt," I suddenly demanded, "that you're so
unfortunate as to have had some warning about your beautiful eyes?"

I was startled by the effect of my words; the girl threw back her head,
changing colour from brow to chin.  "True?  Who in the world says so?"  I
repented of my question in a flash; the way she met it made it seem
cruel, and I felt my mother look at me in some surprise.  I took care, in
answer to Flora's challenge, not to incriminate Mrs. Meldrum.  I answered
that the rumour had reached me only in the vaguest form and that if I had
been moved to put it to the test my very real interest in her must be
held responsible.  Her blush died away, but a pair of still prettier
tears glistened in its track.  "If you ever hear such a thing said again
you can say it's a horrid lie!"  I had brought on a commotion deeper than
any I was prepared for; but it was explained in some degree by the next
words she uttered: "I'm happy to say there's nothing the matter with any
part of me whatever, not the least little thing!"  She spoke with her
habitual complacency, with triumphant assurance; she smiled again, and I
could see how she wished that she hadn't so taken me up.  She turned it
off with a laugh.  "I've good eyes, good teeth, a good digestion and a
good temper.  I'm sound of wind and limb!"  Nothing could have been more
characteristic than her blush and her tears, nothing less acceptable to
her than to be thought not perfect in every particular.  She couldn't
submit to the imputation of a flaw.  I expressed my delight in what she
told me, assuring her I should always do battle for her; and as if to
rejoin her companions she got up from her place on my mother's toes.  The
young men presented their backs to us; they were leaning on the rail of
the cliff.  Our incident had produced a certain awkwardness, and while I
was thinking of what next to say she exclaimed irrelevantly: "Don't you
know?  He'll be Lord Considine."  At that moment the youth marked for
this high destiny turned round, and she spoke to my mother.  "I'll
introduce him to you--he's awfully nice."  She beckoned and invited him
with her parasol; the movement struck me as taking everything for
granted.  I had heard of Lord Considine and if I had not been able to
place Lord Iffield it was because I didn't know the name of his eldest
son.  The young man took no notice of Miss Saunt's appeal; he only stared
a moment and then on her repeating it quietly turned his back.  She was
an odd creature: she didn't blush at this; she only said to my mother
apologetically, but with the frankest sweetest amusement, "You don't
mind, do you?  He's a monster of shyness!"  It was as if she were sorry
for every one--for Lord Iffield, the victim of a complaint so painful,
and for my mother, the subject of a certain slight.  "I'm sure I don't
want him!" said my mother, but Flora added some promise of how she would
handle him for his rudeness.  She would clearly never explain anything by
any failure of her own appeal.  There rolled over me while she took leave
of us and floated back to her friends a wave of superstitious dread.  I
seemed somehow to see her go forth to her fate, and yet what should fill
out this orb of a high destiny if not such beauty and such joy?  I had a
dim idea that Lord Considine was a great proprietor, and though there
mingled with it a faint impression that I shouldn't like his son the
result of the two images was a whimsical prayer that the girl mightn't
miss her possible fortune.



CHAPTER IV


One day in the course of the following June there was ushered into my
studio a gentleman whom I had not yet seen but with whom I had been very
briefly in correspondence.  A letter from him had expressed to me some
days before his regret on learning that my "splendid portrait" of Miss
Flora Louisa Saunt, whose full name figured by her own wish in the
catalogue of the exhibition of the Academy, had found a purchaser before
the close of the private view.  He took the liberty of inquiring whether
I might have at his service some other memorial of the same lovely head,
some preliminary sketch, some study for the picture.  I had replied that
I had indeed painted Miss Saunt more than once and that if he were
interested in my work I should be happy to show him what I had done.  Mr.
Geoffrey Dawling, the person thus introduced to me, stumbled into my room
with awkward movements and equivocal sounds--a long, lean, confused,
confusing young man, with a bad complexion and large protrusive teeth.  He
bore in its most indelible pressure the postmark, as it were, of Oxford,
and as soon as he opened his mouth I perceived, in addition to a
remarkable revelation of gums, that the text of the queer communication
matched the registered envelope.  He was full of refinements and angles,
of dreary and distinguished knowledge.  Of his unconscious drollery his
dress freely partook; it seemed, from the gold ring into which his red
necktie was passed to the square toe-caps of his boots, to conform with a
high sense of modernness to the fashion before the last.  There were
moments when his overdone urbanity, all suggestive stammers and
interrogative quavers, made him scarcely intelligible; but I felt him to
be a gentleman and I liked the honesty of his errand and the expression
of his good green eyes.

As a worshipper at the shrine of beauty, however, he needed explaining,
especially when I found he had no acquaintance with my brilliant model;
had on the mere evidence of my picture taken, as he said, a tremendous
fancy to her looks.  I ought doubtless to have been humiliated by the
simplicity of his judgment of them, a judgment for which the rendering
was lost in the subject, quite leaving out the element of art.  He was
like the innocent reader for whom the story is "really true" and the
author a negligible quantity.  He had come to me only because he wanted
to purchase, and I remember being so amused at his attitude, which I had
never seen equally marked in a person of education, that I asked him why,
for the sort of enjoyment he desired, it wouldn't be more to the point to
deal directly with the lady.  He stared and blushed at this; the idea
clearly alarmed him.  He was an extraordinary case--personally so modest
that I could see it had never occurred to him.  He had fallen in love
with a painted sign and seemed content just to dream of what it stood
for.  He was the young prince in the legend or the comedy who loses his
heart to the miniature of the princess beyond seas.  Until I knew him
better this puzzled me much--the link was so missing between his
sensibility and his type.  He was of course bewildered by my sketches,
which implied in the beholder some sense of intention and quality; but
for one of them, a comparative failure, he ended by conceiving a
preference so arbitrary and so lively that, taking no second look at the
others, he expressed his wish to possess it and fell into the extremity
of confusion over the question of price.  I helped him over that stile,
and he went off without having asked me a direct question about Miss
Saunt, yet with his acquisition under his arm.  His delicacy was such
that he evidently considered his rights to be limited; he had acquired
none at all in regard to the original of the picture.  There were
others--for I was curious about him--that I wanted him to feel I
conceded: I should have been glad of his carrying away a sense of ground
acquired for coming back.  To ensure this I had probably only to invite
him, and I perfectly recall the impulse that made me forbear.  It
operated suddenly from within while he hung about the door and in spite
of the diffident appeal that blinked in his gentle grin.  If he was
smitten with Flora's ghost what mightn't be the direct force of the
luminary that could cast such a shadow?  This source of radiance,
flooding my poor place, might very well happen to be present the next
time he should turn up.  The idea was sharp within me that there were
relations and complications it was no mission of mine to bring about.  If
they were to develop they should develop in their very own sense.

Let me say at once that they did develop and that I perhaps after all had
something to do with it.  If Mr. Dawling had departed without a fresh
appointment he was to reappear six months later under protection no less
powerful than that of our young lady herself.  I had seen her repeatedly
for months: she had grown to regard my studio as the temple of her
beauty.  This miracle was recorded and celebrated there as nowhere else;
in other places there was occasional reference to other subjects of
remark.  The degree of her presumption continued to be stupefying; there
was nothing so extraordinary save the degree in which she never paid for
it.  She was kept innocent, that is she was kept safe, by her egotism,
but she was helped also, though she had now put off her mourning, by the
attitude of the lone orphan who had to be a law unto herself.  It was as
a lone orphan that she came and went, as a lone orphan that she was the
centre of a crush.  The neglect of the Hammond Synges gave relief to this
character, and she made it worth their while to be, as every one said,
too shocking.  Lord Iffield had gone to India to shoot tigers, but he
returned in time for the punctual private view: it was he who had snapped
up, as Flora called it, the gem of the exhibition.  My hope for the
girl's future had slipped ignominiously off his back, but after his
purchase of the portrait I tried to cultivate a new faith.  The girl's
own faith was wonderful.  It couldn't however be contagious: too great
was the limit of her sense of what painters call values.  Her colours
were laid on like blankets on a cold night.  How indeed could a person
speak the truth who was always posturing and bragging?  She was after all
vulgar enough, and by the time I had mastered her profile and could
almost with my eyes shut do it in a single line I was decidedly tired of
its "purity," which affected me at last as inane.  One moved with her,
moreover, among phenomena mismated and unrelated; nothing in her talk
ever matched anything out of it.  Lord Iffield was dying of love for her,
but his family was leading him a life.  His mother, horrid woman, had
told some one that she would rather he should be swallowed by a tiger
than marry a girl not absolutely one of themselves.  He had given his
young friend unmistakable signs, but was lying low, gaining time: it was
in his father's power to be, both in personal and in pecuniary ways,
excessively nasty to him.  His father wouldn't last for ever--quite the
contrary; and he knew how thoroughly, in spite of her youth, her beauty
and the swarm of her admirers, some of them positively threatening in
their passion, he could trust her to hold out.  There were richer,
cleverer men, there were greater personages too, but she liked her
"little viscount" just as he was, and liked to think that, bullied and
persecuted, he had her there so gratefully to rest upon.  She came back
to me with tale upon tale, and it all might be or mightn't.  I never met
my pretty model in the world--she moved, it appeared, in exalted
circles--and could only admire, in her wealth of illustration, the
grandeur of her life and the freedom of her hand.

I had on the first opportunity spoken to her of Geoffrey Dawling, and she
had listened to my story so far as she had the art of such patience,
asking me indeed more questions about him than I could answer; then she
had capped my anecdote with others much more striking, the disclosure of
effects produced in the most extraordinary quarters: on people who had
followed her into railway carriages; guards and porters even who had
literally stuck there; others who had spoken to her in shops and hung
about her house door; cabmen, upon her honour, in London, who, to gaze
their fill at her, had found excuses to thrust their petrifaction through
the very glasses of four-wheelers.  She lost herself in these
reminiscences, the moral of which was that poor Mr. Dawling was only one
of a million.  When therefore the next autumn she flourished into my
studio with her odd companion at her heels her first care was to make
clear to me that if he was now in servitude it wasn't because she had run
after him.  Dawling explained with a hundred grins that when one wished
very much to get anything one usually ended by doing so--a proposition
which led me wholly to dissent and our young lady to asseverate that she
hadn't in the least wished to get Mr. Dawling.  She mightn't have wished
to get him, but she wished to show him, and I seemed to read that if she
could treat him as a trophy her affairs were rather at the ebb.  True
there always hung from her belt a promiscuous fringe of scalps.  Much at
any rate would have come and gone since our separation in July.  She had
spent four months abroad, where, on Swiss and Italian lakes, in German
cities, in the French capital, many accidents might have happened.



CHAPTER V


I had been again with my mother, but except Mrs. Meldrum and the gleam of
France had not found at Folkestone my old resources and pastimes.  Mrs.
Meldrum, much edified by my report of the performances, as she called
them, in my studio, had told me that to her knowledge Flora would soon be
on the straw: she had cut from her capital such fine fat slices that
there was almost nothing more left to swallow.  Perched on her breezy
cliff the good lady dazzled me as usual by her universal light: she knew
so much more about everything and everybody than I could ever squeeze out
of my colour-tubes.  She knew that Flora was acting on system and
absolutely declined to be interfered with: her precious reasoning was
that her money would last as long as she should need it, that a
magnificent marriage would crown her charms before she should be really
pinched.  She had a sum put by for a liberal outfit; meanwhile the proper
use of the rest was to decorate her for the approaches to the altar, keep
her afloat in the society in which she would most naturally meet her
match.  Lord Iffield had been seen with her at Lucerne, at Cadenabbia;
but it was Mrs. Meldrum's conviction that nothing was to be expected of
him but the most futile flirtation.  The girl had a certain hold of him,
but with a great deal of swagger he hadn't the spirit of a sheep: he was
in fear of his father and would never commit himself in Lord Considine's
lifetime.  The most Flora might achieve was that he wouldn't marry some
one else.  Geoffrey Dawling, to Mrs. Meldrum's knowledge (I had told her
of the young man's visit) had attached himself on the way back from Italy
to the Hammond Synge group.  My informant was in a position to be
definite about this dangler; she knew about his people; she had heard of
him before.  Hadn't he been a friend of one of her nephews at Oxford?
Hadn't he spent the Christmas holidays precisely three years before at
her brother-in-law's in Yorkshire, taking that occasion to get himself
refused with derision by wilful Betty, the second daughter of the house?
Her sister, who liked the floundering youth, had written to her to
complain of Betty, and that the young man should now turn up as an
appendage of Flora's was one of those oft-cited proofs that the world is
small and that there are not enough people to go round.  His father had
been something or other in the Treasury; his grandfather on the mother's
side had been something or other in the Church.  He had come into the
paternal estate, two or three thousand a year in Hampshire; but he had
let the place advantageously and was generous to four plain sisters who
lived at Bournemouth and adored him.  The family was hideous all round,
but the very salt of the earth.  He was supposed to be unspeakably
clever; he was fond of London, fond of books, of intellectual society and
of the idea of a political career.  That such a man should be at the same
time fond of Flora Saunt attested, as the phrase in the first volume of
Gibbon has it, the variety of his inclinations.  I was soon to learn that
he was fonder of her than of all the other things together.  Betty, one
of five and with views above her station, was at any rate felt at home to
have dished herself by her perversity.  Of course no one had looked at
her since and no one would ever look at her again.  It would be eminently
desirable that Flora should learn the lesson of Betty's fate.

I was not struck, I confess, with all this in my mind, by any symptom on
our young lady's part of that sort of meditation.  The one moral she saw
in anything was that of her incomparable aspect, which Mr. Dawling,
smitten even like the railway porters and the cabmen by the doom-dealing
gods, had followed from London to Venice and from Venice back to London
again.  I afterwards learned that her version of this episode was
profusely inexact: his personal acquaintance with her had been determined
by an accident remarkable enough, I admit, in connexion with what had
gone before--a coincidence at all events superficially striking.  At
Munich, returning from a tour in the Tyrol with two of his sisters, he
had found himself at the table d'hote of his inn opposite to the full
presentment of that face of which the mere clumsy copy had made him dream
and desire.  He had been tossed by it to a height so vertiginous as to
involve a retreat from the board; but the next day he had dropped with a
resounding thud at the very feet of his apparition.  On the following,
with an equal incoherence, a sacrifice even of his bewildered sisters,
whom he left behind, he made an heroic effort to escape by flight from a
fate of which he had already felt the cold breath.  That fate, in London,
very little later, drove him straight before it--drove him one Sunday
afternoon, in the rain, to the door of the Hammond Synges.  He marched in
other words close up to the cannon that was to blow him to pieces.  But
three weeks, when he reappeared to me, had elapsed since then, yet (to
vary my metaphor) the burden he was to carry for the rest of his days was
firmly lashed to his back.  I don't mean by this that Flora had been
persuaded to contract her scope; I mean that he had been treated to the
unconditional snub which, as the event was to show, couldn't have been
bettered as a means of securing him.  She hadn't calculated, but she had
said "Never!" and that word had made a bed big enough for his long-legged
patience.  He became from this moment to my mind the interesting figure
in the piece.

Now that he had acted without my aid I was free to show him this, and
having on his own side something to show me he repeatedly knocked at my
door.  What he brought with him on these occasions was a simplicity so
huge that, as I turn my ear to the past, I seem even now to hear it
bumping up and down my stairs.  That was really what I saw of him in the
light of his behaviour.  He had fallen in love as he might have broken
his leg, and the fracture was of a sort that would make him permanently
lame.  It was the whole man who limped and lurched, with nothing of him
left in the same position as before.  The tremendous cleverness, the
literary society, the political ambition, the Bournemouth sisters all
seemed to flop with his every movement a little nearer to the floor.  I
hadn't had an Oxford training and I had never encountered the great man
at whose feet poor Dawling had most submissively sat and who had
addressed him his most destructive sniffs; but I remember asking myself
how effectively this privilege had supposed itself to prepare him for the
career on which my friend appeared now to have embarked.  I remember too
making up my mind about the cleverness, which had its uses and I suppose
in impenetrable shades even its critics, but from which the friction of
mere personal intercourse was not the sort of process to extract a
revealing spark.  He accepted without a question both his fever and his
chill, and the only thing he touched with judgment was this convenience
of my friendship.  He doubtless told me his simple story, but the matter
comes back in a kind of sense of my being rather the mouthpiece, of my
having had to put it together for him.  He took it from me in this form
without a groan, and I gave it him quite as it came; he took it again and
again, spending his odd half-hours with me as if for the very purpose of
learning how idiotically he was in love.  He told me I made him see
things: to begin with, hadn't I first made him see Flora Saunt?  I wanted
him to give her up and lucidly informed him why; on which he never
protested nor contradicted, never was even so alembicated as to declare
just for the sake of the point that he wouldn't.  He simply and
pointlessly didn't, and when at the end of three months I asked him what
was the use of talking with such a fellow his nearest approach to a
justification was to say that what made him want to help her was just the
deficiencies I dwelt on.  I could only reply without gross developments:
"Oh if you're as sorry for her as that!"  I too was nearly as sorry for
her as that, but it only led me to be sorrier still for other victims of
this compassion.  With Dawling as with me the compassion was at first in
excess of any visible motive; so that when eventually the motive was
supplied each could to a certain extent compliment the other on the
fineness of his foresight.

After he had begun to haunt my studio Miss Saunt quite gave it up, and I
finally learned that she accused me of conspiring with him to put
pressure on her to marry him.  She didn't know I would take it that way,
else she would never have brought him to see me.  It was in her view a
part of the conspiracy that to show him a kindness I asked him at last to
sit to me.  I dare say moreover she was disgusted to hear that I had
ended by attempting almost as many sketches of his beauty as I had
attempted of hers.  What was the value of tributes to beauty by a hand
that could so abase itself?  My relation to poor Dawling's want of
modelling was simple enough.  I was really digging in that sandy desert
for the buried treasure of his soul.



CHAPTER VI


It befell at this period, just before Christmas, that on my having gone
under pressure of the season into a great shop to buy a toy or two, my
eyes fleeing from superfluity, lighted at a distance on the bright
concretion of Flora Saunt, an exhibitability that held its own even
against the most plausible pinkness of the most developed dolls.  A huge
quarter of the place, the biggest bazaar "on earth," was peopled with
these and other effigies and fantasies, as well as with purchasers and
vendors haggard alike, in the blaze of the gas, with hesitations.  I was
just about to appeal to Flora to avert that stage of my errand when I saw
that she was accompanied by a gentleman whose identity, though more than
a year had elapsed, came back to me from the Folkestone cliff.  It had
been associated on that scene with showy knickerbockers; at present it
overflowed more splendidly into a fur-trimmed overcoat.  Lord Iffield's
presence made me waver an instant before crossing over, and during that
instant Flora, blank and undistinguishing, as if she too were after all
weary of alternatives, looked straight across at me.  I was on the point
of raising my hat to her when I observed that her face gave no sign.  I
was exactly in the line of her vision, but she either didn't see me or
didn't recognise me, or else had a reason to pretend she didn't.  Was her
reason that I had displeased her and that she wished to punish me?  I had
always thought it one of her merits that she wasn't vindictive.  She at
any rate simply looked away; and at this moment one of the shop-girls,
who had apparently gone off in search of it, bustled up to her with a
small mechanical toy.  It so happened that I followed closely what then
took place, afterwards recognising that I had been led to do so, led even
through the crowd to press nearer for the purpose, by an impression of
which in the act I was not fully conscious.

Flora with the toy in her hand looked round at her companion; then seeing
his attention had been solicited in another quarter she moved away with
the shop-girl, who had evidently offered to conduct her into the presence
of more objects of the same sort.  When she reached the indicated spot I
was in a position still to observe her.  She had asked some question
about the working of the toy, and the girl, taking it herself, began to
explain the little secret.  Flora bent her head over it, but she clearly
didn't understand.  I saw her, in a manner that quickened my curiosity,
give a glance back at the place from which she had come.  Lord Iffield
was talking with another young person; she satisfied herself of this by
the aid of a question addressed to her own attendant.  She then drew
closer to the table near which she stood and, turning her back to me,
bent her head lower over the collection of toys and more particularly
over the small object the girl had attempted to explain.  She took it
again and, after a moment, with her face well averted, made an odd motion
of her arms and a significant little duck of her head.  These slight
signs, singular as it may appear, produced in my bosom an agitation so
great that I failed to notice Lord Iffield's whereabouts.  He had
rejoined her; he was close upon her before I knew it or before she knew
it herself.  I felt at that instant the strangest of all promptings: if
it could have operated more rapidly it would have caused me to dash
between them in some such manner as to give Flora a caution.  In fact as
it was I think I could have done this in time had I not been checked by a
curiosity stronger still than my impulse.  There were three seconds
during which I saw the young man and yet let him come on.  Didn't I make
the quick calculation that if he didn't catch what Flora was doing I too
might perhaps not catch it?  She at any rate herself took the alarm.  On
perceiving her companion's nearness she made, still averted, another duck
of her head and a shuffle of her hands so precipitate that a little tin
steamboat she had been holding escaped from them and rattled down to the
floor with a sharpness that I hear at this hour.  Lord Iffield had
already seized her arm; with a violent jerk he brought her round toward
him.  Then it was that there met my eyes a quite distressing sight: this
exquisite creature, blushing, glaring, exposed, with a pair of big black-
rimmed eye-glasses, defacing her by their position, crookedly astride of
her beautiful nose.  She made a grab at them with her free hand while I
turned confusedly away.



CHAPTER VII


I don't remember how soon it was I spoke to Geoffrey Dawling; his
sittings were irregular, but it was certainly the very next time he gave
me one.

"Has any rumour ever reached you of Miss Saunt's having anything the
matter with her eyes?"  He stared with a candour that was a sufficient
answer to my question, backing it up with a shocked and mystified
"Never!"  Then I asked him if he had observed in her any symptom, however
disguised, of embarrassed sight; on which, after a moment's thought, he
exclaimed "Disguised?" as if my use of that word had vaguely awakened a
train.  "She's not a bit myopic," he said; "she doesn't blink or contract
her lids."  I fully recognised this and I mentioned that she altogether
denied the impeachment; owing it to him moreover to explain the ground of
my inquiry, I gave him a sketch of the incident that had taken place
before me at the shop.  He knew all about Lord Iffield; that nobleman had
figured freely in our conversation as his preferred, his injurious rival.
Poor Dawling's contention was that if there had been a definite
engagement between his lordship and the young lady, the sort of thing
that was announced in the Morning Post, renunciation and retirement would
be comparatively easy to him; but that having waited in vain for any such
assurance he was entitled to act as if the door were not really closed or
were at any rate not cruelly locked.  He was naturally much struck with
my anecdote and still more with my interpretation of it.

"There _is_ something, there _is_ something--possibly something very
grave, certainly something that requires she should make use of
artificial aids.  She won't admit it publicly, because with her idolatry
of her beauty, the feeling she is all made up of, she sees in such aids
nothing but the humiliation and the disfigurement.  She has used them in
secret, but that is evidently not enough, for the affection she suffers
from, apparently some definite menace, has lately grown much worse.  She
looked straight at me in the shop, which was violently lighted, without
seeing it was I.  At the same distance, at Folkestone, where as you know
I first met her, where I heard this mystery hinted at and where she
indignantly denied the thing, she appeared easily enough to recognise
people.  At present she couldn't really make out anything the shop-girl
showed her.  She has successfully concealed from the man I saw her with
that she resorts in private to a pince-nez and that she does so not only
under the strictest orders from her oculist, but because literally the
poor thing can't accomplish without such help half the business of life.
Iffield however has suspected something, and his suspicions, whether
expressed or kept to himself, have put him on the watch.  I happened to
have a glimpse of the movement at which he pounced on her and caught her
in the act."

I had thought it all out; my idea explained many things, and Dawling
turned pale as he listened to me.

"Was he rough with her?" he anxiously asked.

"How can I tell what passed between them?  I fled from the place."

My companion stared.  "Do you mean to say her eyesight's going?"

"Heaven forbid!  In that case how could she take life as she does?"

"How _does_ she take life?  That's the question!"  He sat there
bewilderedly brooding; the tears rose to his lids; they reminded me of
those I had seen in Flora's the day I risked my enquiry.  The question he
had asked was one that to my own satisfaction I was ready to answer, but
I hesitated to let him hear as yet all that my reflections had suggested.
I was indeed privately astonished at their ingenuity.  For the present I
only rejoined that it struck me she was playing a particular game; at
which he went on as if he hadn't heard me, suddenly haunted with a fear,
lost in the dark possibility.  "Do you mean there's a danger of anything
very bad?"

"My dear fellow, you must ask her special adviser."

"Who in the world is her special adviser?"

"I haven't a conception.  But we mustn't get too excited.  My impression
would be that she has only to observe a few ordinary rules, to exercise a
little common sense."

Dawling jumped at this.  "I see--to stick to the pince-nez."

"To follow to the letter her oculist's prescription, whatever it is and
at whatever cost to her prettiness.  It's not a thing to be trifled
with."

"Upon my honour it _shan't_ be!" he roundly declared; and he adjusted
himself to his position again as if we had quite settled the business.
After a considerable interval, while I botched away, he suddenly said:
"Did they make a great difference?"

"A great difference?"

"Those things she had put on."

"Oh the glasses--in her beauty?  She looked queer of course, but it was
partly because one was unaccustomed.  There are women who look charming
in nippers.  What, at any rate, if she does look queer?  She must be mad
not to accept that alternative."

"She _is_ mad," said Geoffrey Dawling.

"Mad to refuse you, I grant.  Besides," I went on, "the pince-nez, which
was a large and peculiar one, was all awry: she had half pulled it off,
but it continued to stick, and she was crimson, she was angry."

"It must have been horrible!" my companion groaned.

"It _was_ horrible.  But it's still more horrible to defy all warnings;
it's still more horrible to be landed in--"  Without saying in what I
disgustedly shrugged my shoulders.

After a glance at me Dawling jerked round.  "Then you do believe that she
may be?"

I hesitated.  "The thing would be to make _her_ believe it.  She only
needs a good scare."

"But if that fellow is shocked at the precautions she does take?"

"Oh who knows?" I rejoined with small sincerity.  "I don't suppose
Iffield is absolutely a brute."

"I would take her with leather blinders, like a shying mare!" cried
Geoffrey Dawling.

I had an impression that Iffield wouldn't, but I didn't communicate it,
for I wanted to pacify my friend, whom I had discomposed too much for the
purposes of my sitting.  I recollect that I did some good work that
morning, but it also comes back to me that before we separated he had
practically revealed to me that my anecdote, connecting itself in his
mind with a series of observations at the time unconscious and
unregistered, had covered with light the subject of our colloquy.  He had
had a formless perception of some secret that drove Miss Saunt to
subterfuges, and the more he thought of it the more he guessed this
secret to be the practice of making believe she saw when she didn't and
of cleverly keeping people from finding out how little she saw.  When one
pieced things together it was astonishing what ground they covered.  Just
as he was going away he asked me from what source at Folkestone the
horrid tale had proceeded.  When I had given him, as I saw no reason not
to do, the name of Mrs. Meldrum he exclaimed: "Oh I know all about her;
she's a friend of some friends of mine!"  At this I remembered wilful
Betty and said to myself that I knew some one who would probably prove
more wilful still.



CHAPTER VIII


A few days later I again heard Dawling on my stairs, and even before he
passed my threshold I knew he had something to tell.

"I've been down to Folkestone--it was necessary I should see her!"  I
forget whether he had come straight from the station; he was at any rate
out of breath with his news, which it took me however a minute to apply.

"You mean that you've been with Mrs. Meldrum?"

"Yes, to ask her what she knows and how she comes to know it.  It worked
upon me awfully--I mean what you told me."  He made a visible effort to
seem quieter than he was, and it showed me sufficiently that he had not
been reassured.  I laid, to comfort him and smiling at a venture, a
friendly hand on his arm, and he dropped into my eyes, fixing them an
instant, a strange distended look which might have expressed the cold
clearness of all that was to come.  "I _know--_now!" he said with an
emphasis he rarely used.

"What then did Mrs. Meldrum tell you?"

"Only one thing that signified, for she has no real knowledge.  But that
one thing was everything."

"What is it then?"

"Why, that she can't bear the sight of her."  His pronouns required some
arranging, but after I had successfully dealt with them I replied that I
was quite aware of Miss Saunt's trick of turning her back on the good
lady of Folkestone.  Only what did that prove?  "Have you never guessed?
I guessed as soon as she spoke!"  Dawling towered over me in dismal
triumph.  It was the first time in our acquaintance that, on any ground
of understanding this had occurred; but even so remarkable an incident
still left me sufficiently at sea to cause him to continue: "Why, the
effect of those spectacles!"

I seemed to catch the tail of his idea.  "Mrs. Meldrum's?"

"They're so awfully ugly and they add so to the dear woman's ugliness."
This remark began to flash a light, and when he quickly added "She sees
herself, she sees her own fate!" my response was so immediate that I had
almost taken the words out of his mouth.  While I tried to fix this
sudden image of Flora's face glazed in and cross-barred even as Mrs.
Meldrum's was glazed and barred, he went on to assert that only the
horror of that image, looming out at herself, could be the reason of her
avoiding the person who so forced it home.  The fact he had encountered
made everything hideously vivid, and more vivid than anything else that
just such another pair of goggles was what would have been prescribed to
Flora.

"I see--I see," I presently returned.  "What would become of Lord Iffield
if she were suddenly to come out in them?  What indeed would become of
every one, what would become of everything?"  This was an enquiry that
Dawling was evidently unprepared to meet, and I completed it by saying at
last: "My dear fellow, for that matter, what would become of _you_?"

Once more he turned on me his good green eyes.  "Oh I shouldn't mind!"

The tone of his words somehow made his ugly face beautiful, and I
discovered at this moment how much I really liked him.  None the less, at
the same time, perversely and rudely, I felt the droll side of our
discussion of such alternatives.  It made me laugh out and say to him
while I laughed: "You'd take her even with those things of Mrs.
Meldrum's?"

He remained mournfully grave; I could see that he was surprised at my
rude mirth.  But he summoned back a vision of the lady at Folkestone and
conscientiously replied: "Even with those things of Mrs. Meldrum's."  I
begged him not to resent my laughter, which but exposed the fact that we
had built a monstrous castle in the air.  Didn't he see on what flimsy
ground the structure rested?  The evidence was preposterously small.  He
believed the worst, but we were really uninformed.

"I shall find out the truth," he promptly replied.

"How can you?  If you question her you'll simply drive her to perjure
herself.  Wherein after all does it concern you to know the truth?  It's
the girl's own affair."

"Then why did you tell me your story?"

I was a trifle embarrassed.  "To warn you off," I smiled.  He took no
more notice of these words than presently to remark that Lord Iffield had
no serious intentions.  "Very possibly," I said.  "But you mustn't speak
as if Lord Iffield and you were her only alternatives."

Dawling thought a moment.  "Couldn't something be got out of the people
she has consulted?  She must have been to people.  How else can she have
been condemned?"

"Condemned to what?  Condemned to perpetual nippers?  Of course she has
consulted some of the big specialists, but she has done it, you may be
sure, in the most clandestine manner; and even if it were supposable that
they would tell you anything--which I altogether doubt--you would have
great difficulty in finding out which men they are.  Therefore leave it
alone; never show her what you suspect."

I even before he quitted me asked him to promise me this.  "All right, I
promise"--but he was gloomy enough.  He was a lover facing the fact that
there was no limit to the deceit his loved one was ready to practise: it
made so remarkably little difference.  I could see by what a stretch his
passionate pity would from this moment overlook the girl's fatuity and
folly.  She was always accessible to him--that I knew; for if she had
told him he was an idiot to dream she could dream of him, she would have
rebuked the imputation of having failed to make it clear that she would
always be glad to regard him as a friend.  What were most of her
friends--what were all of them--but repudiated idiots?  I was perfectly
aware that in her conversations and confidences I myself for instance had
a niche in the gallery.  As regards poor Dawling I knew how often he
still called on the Hammond Synges.  It was not there but under the wing
of the Floyd-Taylors that her intimacy with Lord Iffield most flourished.
At all events, when a week after the visit I have just summarised Flora's
name was one morning brought up to me, I jumped at the conclusion that
Dawling had been with her, and even I fear briefly entertained the
thought that he had broken his word.



CHAPTER IX


She left me, after she had been introduced, in no suspense about her
present motive; she was on the contrary in a visible fever to enlighten
me; but I promptly learned that for the alarm with which she pitiably
panted our young man was not accountable.  She had but one thought in the
world, and that thought was for Lord Iffield.  I had the strangest
saddest scene with her, and if it did me no other good it at least made
me at last completely understand why insidiously, from the first, she had
struck me as a creature of tragedy.  In showing me the whole of her folly
it lifted the curtain of her misery.  I don't know how much she meant to
tell me when she came--I think she had had plans of elaborate
misrepresentation; at any rate she found it at the end of ten minutes the
simplest way to break down and sob, to be wretched and true.  When she
had once begun to let herself go the movement took her off her feet; the
relief of it was like the cessation of a cramp.  She shared in a word her
long secret, she shifted her sharp pain.  She brought, I confess, tears
to my own eyes, tears of helpless tenderness for her helpless poverty.
Her visit however was not quite so memorable in itself as in some of its
consequences, the most immediate of which was that I went that afternoon
to see Geoffrey Dawling, who had in those days rooms in Welbeck Street,
where I presented myself at an hour late enough to warrant the
supposition that he might have come in.  He had not come in, but he was
expected, and I was invited to enter and wait for him: a lady, I was
informed, was already in his sitting-room.  I hesitated, a little at a
loss: it had wildly coursed through my brain that the lady was perhaps
Flora Saunt.  But when I asked if she were young and remarkably pretty I
received so significant a "No sir!" that I risked an advance and after a
minute in this manner found myself, to my astonishment, face to face with
Mrs. Meldrum.

"Oh you dear thing," she exclaimed, "I'm delighted to see you: you spare
me another compromising demarche!  But for this I should have called on
you also.  Know the worst at once: if you see me here it's at least
deliberate--it's planned, plotted, shameless.  I came up on purpose to
see him, upon my word I'm in love with him.  Why, if you valued my peace
of mind, did you let him the other day at Folkestone dawn upon my
delighted eyes?  I found myself there in half an hour simply infatuated
with him.  With a perfect sense of everything that can be urged against
him I hold him none the less the very pearl of men.  However, I haven't
come up to declare my passion--I've come to bring him news that will
interest him much more.  Above all I've come to urge upon him to be
careful."

"About Flora Saunt?"

"About what he says and does: he must be as still as a mouse!  She's at
last really engaged."

"But it's a tremendous secret?"  I was moved to mirth.

"Precisely: she wired me this noon, and spent another shilling to tell me
that not a creature in the world is yet to know it."

"She had better have spent it to tell you that she had just passed an
hour with the creature you see before you."

"She has just passed an hour with every one in the place!" Mrs. Meldrum
cried.  "They've vital reasons, she says, for it's not coming out for a
month.  Then it will be formally announced, but meanwhile her rejoicing
is wild.  I daresay Mr. Dawling already knows and, as it's nearly seven
o'clock, may have jumped off London Bridge.  But an effect of the talk I
had with him the other day was to make me, on receipt of my telegram,
feel it to be my duty to warn him in person against taking action, so to
call it, on the horrid certitude which I could see he carried away with
him.  I had added somehow to that certitude.  He told me what you had
told him you had seen in your shop."

Mrs. Meldrum, I perceived, had come to Welbeck Street on an errand
identical with my own--a circumstance indicating her rare sagacity,
inasmuch as her ground for undertaking it was a very different thing from
what Flora's wonderful visit had made of mine.  I remarked to her that
what I had seen in the shop was sufficiently striking, but that I had
seen a great deal more that morning in my studio.  "In short," I said,
"I've seen everything."

She was mystified.  "Everything?"

"The poor creature is under the darkest of clouds.  Oh she came to
triumph, but she remained to talk something in the nature of sense!  She
put herself completely in my hands--she does me the honour to intimate
that of all her friends I'm the most disinterested.  After she had
announced to me that Lord Iffield was utterly committed to her and that
for the present I was absolutely the only person in the secret, she
arrived at her real business.  She had had a suspicion of me ever since
that day at Folkestone when I asked her for the truth about her eyes.  The
truth is what you and I both guessed.  She's in very bad danger."

"But from what cause?  I, who by God's mercy have kept mine, know
everything that can be known about eyes," said Mrs. Meldrum.

"She might have kept hers if she had profited by God's mercy, if she had
done in time, done years ago, what was imperatively ordered her; if she
hadn't in fine been cursed with the loveliness that was to make her
behaviour a thing of fable.  She may still keep her sight, or what
remains of it, if she'll sacrifice--and after all so little--that purely
superficial charm.  She must do as you've done; she must wear, dear lady,
what you wear!"

What my companion wore glittered for the moment like a melon-frame in
August.  "Heaven forgive her--now I understand!"  She flushed for dismay.

But I wasn't afraid of the effect on her good nature of her thus seeing,
through her great goggles, why it had always been that Flora held her at
such a distance.  "I can't tell you," I said, "from what special
affection, what state of the eye, her danger proceeds: that's the one
thing she succeeded this morning in keeping from me.  She knows it
herself perfectly; she has had the best advice in Europe.  'It's a thing
that's awful, simply awful'--that was the only account she would give me.
Year before last, while she was at Boulogne, she went for three days with
Mrs. Floyd-Taylor to Paris.  She there surreptitiously consulted the
greatest man--even Mrs. Floyd-Taylor doesn't know.  Last autumn in
Germany she did the same.  'First put on certain special spectacles with
a straight bar in the middle: then we'll talk'--that's practically what
they say.  What _she_ says is that she'll put on anything in nature when
she's married, but that she must get married first.  She has always meant
to do everything as soon as she's married.  Then and then only she'll be
safe.  How will any one ever look at her if she makes herself a fright?
How could she ever have got engaged if she had made herself a fright from
the first?  It's no use to insist that with her beauty she can never _be_
a fright.  She said to me this morning, poor girl, the most
characteristic, the most harrowing things.  'My face is all I have--and
_such_ a face!  I knew from the first I could do anything with it.  But I
needed it all--I need it still, every exquisite inch of it.  It isn't as
if I had a figure or anything else.  Oh if God had only given me a figure
too, I don't say!  Yes, with a figure, a really good one, like Fanny
Floyd-Taylor's, who's hideous, I'd have risked plain glasses.  Que voulez-
vous?  No one is perfect.'  She says she still has money left, but I
don't believe a word of it.  She has been speculating on her impunity, on
the idea that her danger would hold off: she has literally been running a
race with it.  Her theory has been, as you from the first so clearly saw,
that she'd get in ahead.  She swears to me that though the 'bar' is too
cruel she wears when she's alone what she has been ordered to wear.  But
when the deuce is she alone?  It's herself of course that she has
swindled worst: she has put herself off, so insanely that even her
conceit but half accounts for it, with little inadequate concessions,
little false measures and preposterous evasions and childish hopes.  Her
great terror is now that Iffield, who already has suspicions, who has
found out her pince-nez but whom she has beguiled with some unblushing
hocus-pocus, may discover the dreadful facts; and the essence of what she
wanted this morning was in that interest to square me, to get me to deny
indignantly and authoritatively (for isn't she my 'favourite sitter?')
that she has anything in life the matter with any part of her.  She
sobbed, she 'went on,' she entreated; after we got talking her
extraordinary nerve left her and she showed me what she has been
through--showed me also all her terror of the harm I could do her.  'Wait
till I'm married! wait till I'm married!'  She took hold of me, she
almost sank on her knees.  It seems to me highly immoral, one's
participation in her fraud; but there's no doubt that she must be
married: I don't know what I don't see behind it!  Therefore," I wound
up, "Dawling must keep his hands off."

Mrs. Meldrum had held her breath; she gave out a long moan.  "Well,
that's exactly what I came here to tell him."

"Then here he is."  Our host, all unprepared, his latchkey still in his
hand, had just pushed open the door and, startled at finding us, turned a
frightened look from one to the other, wondering what disaster we were
there to announce or avert.

Mrs. Meldrum was on the spot all gaiety.  "I've come to return your sweet
visit.  Ah," she laughed, "I mean to keep up the acquaintance!"

"Do--do," he murmured mechanically and absently, continuing to look at
us.  Then he broke out: "He's going to marry her."

I was surprised.  "You already know?"

He produced an evening paper, which he tossed down on the table.  "It's
in that."

"Published--already?" I was still more surprised.

"Oh Flora can't keep a secret!"--Mrs. Meldrum made it light.  She went up
to poor Dawling and laid a motherly hand upon him.

"It's all right--it's just as it ought to be: don't think about her ever
any more."  Then as he met this adjuration with a stare from which
thought, and of the most defiant and dismal, fairly protruded, the
excellent woman put up her funny face and tenderly kissed him on the
cheek.



CHAPTER X


I have spoken of these reminiscences as of a row of coloured beads, and I
confess that as I continue to straighten out my chaplet I am rather proud
of the comparison.  The beads are all there, as I said--they slip along
the string in their small smooth roundness.  Geoffrey Dawling accepted as
a gentleman the event his evening paper had proclaimed; in view of which
I snatched a moment to nudge him a hint that he might offer Mrs. Meldrum
his hand.  He returned me a heavy head-shake, and I judged that marriage
would henceforth strike him very much as the traffic of the street may
strike some poor incurable at the window of an hospital.  Circumstances
arising at this time led to my making an absence from England, and
circumstances already existing offered him a firm basis for similar
action.  He had after all the usual resource of a Briton--he could take
to his boats, always drawn up in our background.  He started on a journey
round the globe, and I was left with nothing but my inference as to what
might have happened.  Later observation however only confirmed my belief
that if at any time during the couple of months after Flora Saunt's
brilliant engagement he had made up, as they say, to the good lady of
Folkestone, that good lady would not have pushed him over the cliff.
Strange as she was to behold I knew of cases in which she had been
obliged to administer that shove.  I went to New York to paint a couple
of portraits; but I found, once on the spot, that I had counted without
Chicago, where I was invited to blot out this harsh discrimination by the
production of some dozen.  I spent a year in America and should probably
have spent a second had I not been summoned back to England by alarming
news from my mother.  Her strength had failed, and as soon as I reached
London I hurried down to Folkestone, arriving just at the moment to offer
a welcome to some slight symptom of a rally.  She had been much worse but
was now a little better; and though I found nothing but satisfaction in
having come to her I saw after a few hours that my London studio, where
arrears of work had already met me, would be my place to await whatever
might next occur.  Yet before returning to town I called on Mrs. Meldrum,
from whom I had not had a line, and my view of whom, with the adjacent
objects, as I had left them, had been intercepted by a luxuriant
foreground.

Before I had gained her house I met her, as I supposed, coming toward me
across the down, greeting me from afar with the familiar twinkle of her
great vitreous badge; and as it was late in the autumn and the esplanade
a blank I was free to acknowledge this signal by cutting a caper on the
grass.  My enthusiasm dropped indeed the next moment, for I had seen in a
few more seconds that the person thus assaulted had by no means the
figure of my military friend.  I felt a shock much greater than any I
should have thought possible when on this person's drawing near I knew
her for poor little Flora Saunt.  At what moment she had recognised me
belonged to an order of mysteries over which, it quickly came home to me,
one would never linger again: once we were face to face it so chiefly
mattered that I should succeed in looking entirely unastonished.  All I
at first saw was the big gold bar crossing each of her lenses, over which
something convex and grotesque, like the eyes of a large insect,
something that now represented her whole personality, seemed, as out of
the orifice of a prison, to strain forward and press.  The face had
shrunk away: it looked smaller, appeared even to look plain; it was at
all events, so far as the effect on a spectator was concerned, wholly
sacrificed to this huge apparatus of sight.  There was no smile in it,
and she made no motion to take my offered hand.

"I had no idea you were down here!" I said and I wondered whether she
didn't know me at all or knew me only by my voice.

"You thought I was Mrs. Meldrum," she ever so quietly answered.

It was just this low pitch that made me protest with laughter.  "Oh yes,
you have a tremendous deal in common with Mrs. Meldrum!  I've just
returned to England after a long absence and I'm on my way to see her.
Won't you come with me?"  It struck me that her old reason for keeping
clear of our friend was well disposed of now.

"I've just left her.  I'm staying with her."  She stood solemnly fixing
me with her goggles.  "Would you like to paint me now?" she asked.  She
seemed to speak, with intense gravity, from behind a mask or a cage.

There was nothing to do but treat the question still with high spirits.
"It would be a fascinating little artistic problem!"  That something was
wrong it wasn't difficult to see, but a good deal more than met the eye
might be presumed to be wrong if Flora was under Mrs. Meldrum's roof.  I
hadn't for a year had much time to think of her, but my imagination had
had ground for lodging her in more gilded halls.  One of the last things
I had heard before leaving England was that in commemoration of the new
relationship she had gone to stay with Lady Considine.  This had made me
take everything else for granted, and the noisy American world had
deafened my care to possible contradictions.  Her spectacles were at
present a direct contradiction; they seemed a negation not only of new
relationships but of every old one as well.  I remember nevertheless that
when after a moment she walked beside me on the grass I found myself
nervously hoping she wouldn't as yet at any rate tell me anything very
dreadful; so that to stave off this danger I harried her with questions
about Mrs. Meldrum and, without waiting for replies, became profuse on
the subject of my own doings.  My companion was finely silent, and I felt
both as if she were watching my nervousness with a sort of sinister irony
and as if I were talking to some different and strange person.  Flora
plain and obscure and dumb was no Flora at all.  At Mrs. Meldrum's door
she turned off with the observation that as there was certainly a great
deal I should have to say to our friend she had better not go in with me.
I looked at her again--I had been keeping my eyes away from her--but only
to meet her magnified stare.  I greatly desired in truth to see Mrs.
Meldrum alone, but there was something so grim in the girl's trouble that
I hesitated to fall in with this idea of dropping her.  Yet one couldn't
express a compassion without seeming to take for granted more trouble
than there actually might have been.  I reflected that I must really
figure to her as a fool, which was an entertainment I had never expected
to give her.  It rolled over me there for the first time--it has come
back to me since--that there is, wondrously, in very deep and even in
very foolish misfortune a dignity still finer than in the most inveterate
habit of being all right.  I couldn't have to her the manner of treating
it as a mere detail that I was face to face with a part of what, at our
last meeting, we had had such a scene about; but while I was trying to
think of some manner that I _could_ have she said quite colourlessly,
though somehow as if she might never see me again: "Good-bye.  I'm going
to take my walk."

"All alone?"

She looked round the great bleak cliff-top.  "With whom should I go?
Besides I like to be alone--for the present."

This gave me the glimmer of a vision that she regarded her disfigurement
as temporary, and the confidence came to me that she would never, for her
happiness, cease to be a creature of illusions.  It enabled me to
exclaim, smiling brightly and feeling indeed idiotic: "Oh I shall see you
again!  But I hope you'll have a very pleasant walk."

"All my walks are pleasant, thank you--they do me such a lot of good."
She was as quiet as a mouse, and her words seemed to me stupendous in
their wisdom.  "I take several a day," she continued.  She might have
been an ancient woman responding with humility at the church door to the
patronage of the parson.  "The more I take the better I feel.  I'm
ordered by the doctors to keep all the while in the air and go in for
plenty of exercise.  It keeps up my general health, you know, and if that
goes on improving as it has lately done everything will soon be all
right.  All that was the matter with me before--and always; it was too
reckless!--was that I neglected my general health.  It acts directly on
the state of the particular organ.  So I'm going three miles."

I grinned at her from the doorstep while Mrs. Meldrum's maid stood there
to admit me.  "Oh I'm so glad," I said, looking at her as she paced away
with the pretty flutter she had kept and remembering the day when, while
she rejoined Lord Iffield, I had indulged in the same observation.  Her
air of assurance was on this occasion not less than it had been on that;
but I recalled that she had then struck me as marching off to her doom.
Was she really now marching away from it?



CHAPTER XI


As soon as I saw Mrs. Meldrum I of course broke out.  "Is there anything
in it?  _Is_ her general health--?"

Mrs. Meldrum checked me with her great amused blare.  "You've already
seen her and she has told you her wondrous tale?  What's 'in it' is what
has been in everything she has ever done--the most comical, tragical
belief in herself.  She thinks she's doing a 'cure.'"

"And what does her husband think?"

"Her husband?  What husband?"

"Hasn't she then married Lord Iffield?"

"Vous-en-etes la?" cried my hostess.  "Why he behaved like a regular
beast."

"How should I know?  You never wrote me."  Mrs. Meldrum hesitated,
covering me with what poor Flora called the particular organ.  "No, I
didn't write you--I abstained on purpose.  If I kept quiet I thought you
mightn't hear over there what had happened.  If you should hear I was
afraid you would stir up Mr. Dawling."

"Stir him up?"

"Urge him to fly to the rescue; write out to him that there was another
chance for him."

"I wouldn't have done it," I said.

"Well," Mrs. Meldrum replied, "it was not my business to give you an
opportunity."

"In short you were afraid of it."

Again she hesitated and though it may have been only my fancy I thought
she considerably reddened.  At all events she laughed out.  Then "I was
afraid of it!" she very honestly answered.

"But doesn't he know?  Has he given no sign?"

"Every sign in life--he came straight back to her.  He did everything to
get her to listen to him, but she hasn't the smallest idea of it."

"Has he seen her as she is now?" I presently and just a trifle awkwardly
enquired.

"Indeed he has, and borne it like a hero.  He told me all about it."

"How much you've all been through!" I found occasion to remark.  "Then
what has become of him?"

"He's at home in Hampshire.  He has got back his old place and I believe
by this time his old sisters.  It's not half a bad little place."

"Yet its attractions say nothing to Flora?"

"Oh Flora's by no means on her back!" my fried declared.

"She's not on her back because she's on yours.  Have you got her for the
rest of your life?"

Once more Mrs. Meldrum genially glared.  "Did she tell you how much the
Hammond Synges have kindly left her to live on?  Not quite eighty pounds
a year."

"That's a good deal, but it won't pay the oculist.  What was it that at
last induced her to submit to him?"

"Her general collapse after that brute of an Iffield's rupture.  She
cried her eyes out--she passed through a horror of black darkness.  Then
came a gleam of light, and the light appears to have broadened.  She went
into goggles as repentant Magdalens go into the Catholic church."

"In spite of which you don't think she'll be saved?"

"_She_ thinks she will--that's all I can tell you.  There's no doubt that
when once she brought herself to accept her real remedy, as she calls it,
she began to enjoy a relief that she had never known.  That feeling, very
new and in spite of what she pays for it most refreshing, has given her
something to hold on by, begotten in her foolish little mind a belief
that, as she says, she's on the mend and that in the course of time, if
she leads a tremendously healthy life, she'll be able to take off her
muzzle and become as dangerous again as ever.  It keeps her going."

"And what keeps you?  You're good until the parties begin again."

"Oh she doesn't object to me now!" smiled Mrs. Meldrum.  "I'm going to
take her abroad; we shall be a pretty pair."  I was struck with this
energy and after a moment I enquired the reason of it.  "It's to divert
her mind," my friend replied, reddening again a little, I thought.  "We
shall go next week: I've only waited to see how your mother would be
before starting."  I expressed to her hereupon my sense of her
extraordinary merit and also that of the inconceivability of Flora's
fancying herself still in a situation not to jump at the chance of
marrying a man like Dawling.  "She says he's too ugly; she says he's too
dreary; she says in fact he's 'nobody,'" Mrs. Meldrum pursued.  "She says
above all that he's not 'her own sort.'  She doesn't deny that he's good,
but she finds him impossibly ridiculous.  He's quite the last person she
would ever dream of."  I was almost disposed on hearing this to protest
that if the girl had so little proper feeling her noble suitor had
perhaps served her right; but after a while my curiosity as to just how
her noble suitor _had_ served her got the better of that emotion, and I
asked a question or two which led my companion again to apply to him the
invidious term I have already quoted.  What had happened was simply that
Flora had at the eleventh hour broken down in the attempt to put him off
with an uncandid account of her infirmity and that his lordship's
interest in her had not been proof against the discovery of the way she
had practised on him.  Her dissimulation, he was obliged to perceive, had
been infernally deep.  The future in short assumed a new complexion for
him when looked at through the grim glasses of a bride who, as he had
said to some one, couldn't really, when you came to find out, see her
hand before her face.  He had conducted himself like any other jockeyed
customer--he had returned the animal as unsound.  He had backed out in
his own way, giving the business, by some sharp shuffle, such a turn as
to make the rupture ostensibly Flora's, but he had none the less
remorselessly and basely backed out.  He had cared for her lovely face,
cared for it in the amused and haunted way it had been her poor little
delusive gift to make men care; and her lovely face, damn it, with the
monstrous gear she had begun to rig upon it, was just what had let him
in.  He had in the judgment of his family done everything that could be
expected of him; he had made--Mrs. Meldrum had herself seen the letter--a
"handsome" offer of pecuniary compensation.  Oh if Flora, with her
incredible buoyancy, was in a manner on her feet again now it was not
that she had not for weeks and weeks been prone in the dust.  Strange
were the humiliations, the forms of anguish, it was given some natures to
survive.  That Flora had survived was perhaps after all a proof she was
reserved for some final mercy.  "But she has been in the abysses at any
rate," said Mrs. Meldrum, "and I really don't think I can tell you what
pulled her through."

"I think I can tell _you_," I returned.  "What in the world but Mrs.
Meldrum?"

At the end of an hour Flora had not come in, and I was obliged to
announce that I should have but time to reach the station, where I was to
find my luggage in charge of my mother's servant.  Mrs. Meldrum put
before me the question of waiting till a later train, so as not to lose
our young lady, but I confess I gave this alternative a consideration
less acute than I pretended.  Somehow I didn't care if I did lose our
young lady.  Now that I knew the worst that had befallen her it struck me
still less as possible to meet her on the ground of condolence; and with
the sad appearance she wore to me what other ground was left?  I lost
her, but I caught my train.  In truth she was so changed that one hated
to see it; and now that she was in charitable hands one didn't feel
compelled to make great efforts.  I had studied her face for a particular
beauty; I had lived with that beauty and reproduced it; but I knew what
belonged to my trade well enough to be sure it was gone for ever.



CHAPTER XII


I was soon called back to Folkestone; but Mrs. Meldrum and her young
friend had already left England, finding to that end every convenience on
the spot and not having had to come up to town.  My thoughts however were
so painfully engaged there that I should in any case have had little
attention for them: the event occurred that was to bring my series of
visits to a close.  When this high tide had ebbed I returned to America
and to my interrupted work, which had opened out on such a scale that,
with a deep plunge into a great chance, I was three good years in rising
again to the surface.  There are nymphs and naiads moreover in the
American depths: they may have had something to do with the duration of
my dive.  I mention them to account for a grave misdemeanor--the fact
that after the first year I rudely neglected Mrs. Meldrum.  She had
written to me from Florence after my mother's death and had mentioned in
a postscript that in our young lady's calculations the lowest figures
were now Italian counts.  This was a good omen, and if in subsequent
letters there was no news of a sequel I was content to accept small
things and to believe that grave tidings, should there be any, would come
to me in due course.  The gravity of what might happen to a featherweight
became indeed with time and distance less appreciable, and I was not
without an impression that Mrs. Meldrum, whose sense of proportion was
not the least of her merits, had no idea of boring the world with the ups
and downs of her pensioner.  The poor girl grew dusky and dim, a small
fitful memory, a regret tempered by the comfortable consciousness of how
kind Mrs. Meldrum would always be to her.  I was professionally more
preoccupied than I had ever been, and I had swarms of pretty faces in my
eyes and a chorus of loud tones in my ears.  Geoffrey Dawling had on his
return to England written me two or three letters: his last information
had been that he was going into the figures of rural illiteracy.  I was
delighted to receive it and had no doubt that if he should go into
figures they would, as they are said to be able to prove anything, prove
at least that my advice was sound and that he had wasted time enough.
This quickened on my part another hope, a hope suggested by some
roundabout rumour--I forget how it reached me--that he was engaged to a
girl down in Hampshire.  He turned out not to be, but I felt sure that if
only he went into figures deep enough he would become, among the girls
down in Hampshire or elsewhere, one of those numerous prizes of battle
whose defences are practically not on the scale of their provocations.  I
nursed in short the thought that it was probably open to him to develop
as one of the types about whom, as the years go on, superficial critics
wonder without relief how they ever succeeded in dragging a bride to the
altar.  He never alluded to Flora Saunt; and there was in his silence
about her, quite as in Mrs. Meldrum's, an element of instinctive tact, a
brief implication that if you didn't happen to have been in love with her
there was nothing to be said.

Within a week after my return to London I went to the opera, of which I
had always been much of a devotee.  I arrived too late for the first act
of "Lohengrin," but the second was just beginning, and I gave myself up
to it with no more than a glance at the house.  When it was over I
treated myself, with my glass, from my place in the stalls, to a general
survey of the boxes, making doubtless on their contents the reflections,
pointed by comparison, that are most familiar to the wanderer restored to
London.  There was the common sprinkling of pretty women, but I suddenly
noted that one of these was far prettier than the others.  This lady,
alone in one of the smaller receptacles of the grand tier and already the
aim of fifty tentative glasses, which she sustained with admirable
serenity, this single exquisite figure, placed in the quarter furthest
removed from my stall, was a person, I immediately felt, to cause one's
curiosity to linger.  Dressed in white, with diamonds in her hair and
pearls on her neck, she had a pale radiance of beauty which even at that
distance made her a distinguished presence and, with the air that easily
attaches to lonely loveliness in public places, an agreeable mystery.  A
mystery however she remained to me only for a minute after I had levelled
my glass at her: I feel to this moment the startled thrill, the shock
almost of joy, with which I translated her vague brightness into a
resurrection of Flora.  I say a resurrection, because, to put it crudely,
I had on that last occasion left our young woman for dead.  At present
perfectly alive again, she was altered only, as it were, by this fact of
life.  A little older, a little quieter, a little finer and a good deal
fairer, she was simply transfigured by having recovered.  Sustained by
the reflection that even her recovery wouldn't enable her to distinguish
me in the crowd, I was free to look at her well.  Then it was it came
home to me that my vision of her in her great goggles had been cruelly
final.  As her beauty was all there was of her, that machinery had
extinguished her, and so far as I had thought of her in the interval I
had thought of her as buried in the tomb her stern specialist had built.
With the sense that she had escaped from it came a lively wish to return
to her; and if I didn't straightway leave my place and rush round the
theatre and up to her box it was because I was fixed to the spot some
moments longer by the simple inability to cease looking at her.

She had been from the first of my seeing her practically motionless,
leaning back in her chair with a kind of thoughtful grace and with her
eyes vaguely directed, as it seemed on me, to one of the boxes on my side
of the house and consequently over my head and out of my sight.  The only
movement she made for some time was to finger with an ungloved hand and
as if with the habit of fondness the row of pearls on her neck, which my
glass showed me to be large and splendid.  Her diamonds and pearls, in
her solitude, mystified me, making me, as she had had no such brave
jewels in the days of the Hammond Synges, wonder what undreamt-of
improvement had taken place in her fortunes.  The ghost of a question
hovered there a moment: could anything so prodigious have happened as
that on her tested and proved amendment Lord Iffield had taken her back?
This could scarce have without my hearing of it; and moreover if she had
become a person of such fashion where was the little court one would
naturally see at her elbow?  Her isolation was puzzling, though it could
easily suggest that she was but momentarily alone.  If she had come with
Mrs. Meldrum that lady would have taken advantage of the interval to pay
a visit to some other box--doubtless the box at which Flora had just been
looking.  Mrs. Meldrum didn't account for the jewels, but the revival of
Flora's beauty accounted for anything.  She presently moved her eyes over
the house, and I felt them brush me again like the wings of a dove.  I
don't know what quick pleasure flickered into the hope that she would at
last see me.  She did see me: she suddenly bent forward to take up the
little double-barrelled ivory glass that rested on the edge of the box
and to all appearance fix me with it.  I smiled from my place straight up
at the searching lenses, and after an instant she dropped them and smiled
as straight back at me.  Oh her smile--it was her old smile, her young
smile, her very own smile made perfect!  I instantly left my stall and
hurried off for a nearer view of it; quite flushed, I remember, as I went
with the annoyance of having happened to think of the idiotic way I had
tried to paint her.  Poor Iffield with his sample of that error, and
still poorer Dawling in particular with _his_!  I hadn't touched her, I
was professionally humiliated, and as the attendant in the lobby opened
her box for me I felt that the very first thing I should have to say to
her would be that she must absolutely sit to me again.



CHAPTER XIII


She gave me the smile once more as over her shoulder, from her chair, she
turned her face to me.  "Here you are again!" she exclaimed with her
disgloved hand put up a little backward for me to take.  I dropped into a
chair just behind her and, having taken it and noted that one of the
curtains of the box would make the demonstration sufficiently private,
bent my lips over it and impressed them on its finger-tips.  It was given
me however, to my astonishment, to feel next that all the privacy in the
world couldn't have sufficed to mitigate the start with which she greeted
this free application of my moustache: the blood had jumped to her face,
she quickly recovered her hand and jerked at me, twisting herself round,
a vacant challenging stare.  During the next few instants several
extraordinary things happened, the first of which was that now I was
close to them the eyes of loveliness I had come up to look into didn't
show at all the conscious light I had just been pleased to see them flash
across the house: they showed on the contrary, to my confusion, a strange
sweet blankness, an expression I failed to give a meaning to until,
without delay, I felt on my arm, directed to it as if instantly to efface
the effect of her start, the grasp of the hand she had impulsively
snatched from me.  It was the irrepressible question in this grasp that
stopped on my lips all sound of salutation.  She had mistaken my entrance
for that of another person, a pair of lips without a moustache.  She was
feeling me to see who I was!  With the perception of this and of her not
seeing me I sat gaping at her and at the wild word that didn't come, the
right word to express or to disguise my dismay.  What was the right word
to commemorate one's sudden discovery, at the very moment too at which
one had been most encouraged to count on better things, that one's dear
old friend had gone blind?  Before the answer to this question dropped
upon me--and the moving moments, though few, seemed many--I heard, with
the sound of voices, the click of the attendant's key on the other side
of the door.  Poor Flora heard also and on hearing, still with her hand
on my arm, brightened again as I had a minute since seen her brighten
across the house: she had the sense of the return of the person she had
taken me for--the person with the right pair of lips, as to whom I was
for that matter much more in the dark than she.  I gasped, but my word
had come: if she had lost her sight it was in this very loss that she had
found again her beauty.  I managed to speak while we were still alone,
before her companion had appeared.  "You're lovelier at this day than you
have ever been in your life!"  At the sound of my voice and that of the
opening of the door her impatience broke into audible joy.  She sprang
up, recognising me, always holding me, and gleefully cried to a gentleman
who was arrested in the doorway by the sight of me: "He has come back, he
has come back, and you should have heard what he says of me!"  The
gentleman was Geoffrey Dawling, and I thought it best to let him hear on
the spot.  "How beautiful she is, my dear man--but how extraordinarily
beautiful!  More beautiful at this hour than ever, ever before!"

It gave them almost equal pleasure and made Dawling blush to his eyes;
while this in turn produced, in spite of deepened astonishment, a blest
snap of the strain I had been struggling with.  I wanted to embrace them
both, and while the opening bars of another scene rose from the orchestra
I almost did embrace Dawling, whose first emotion on beholding me had
visibly and ever so oddly been a consciousness of guilt.  I had caught
him somehow in the act, though that was as yet all I knew; but by the
time we sank noiselessly into our chairs again--for the music was
supreme, Wagner passed first--my demonstration ought pretty well to have
given him the limit of the criticism he had to fear.  I myself indeed,
while the opera blazed, was only too afraid he might divine in our silent
closeness the very moral of my optimism, which was simply the comfort I
had gathered from seeing that if our companion's beauty lived again her
vanity partook of its life.  I had hit on the right note--that was what
eased me off: it drew all pain for the next half-hour from the sense of
the deep darkness in which the stricken woman sat.  If the music, in that
darkness, happily soared and swelled for her, it beat its wings in unison
with those of a gratified passion.  A great deal came and went between us
without profaning the occasion, so that I could feel at the end of twenty
minutes as if I knew almost everything he might in kindness have to tell
me; knew even why Flora, while I stared at her from the stalls, had
misled me by the use of ivory and crystal and by appearing to recognise
me and smile.  She leaned back in her chair in luxurious ease: I had from
the first become aware that the way she fingered her pearls was a sharp
image of the wedded state.  Nothing of old had seemed wanting to her
assurance, but I hadn't then dreamed of the art with which she would wear
that assurance as a married woman.  She had taken him when everything had
failed; he had taken her when she herself had done so.  His embarrassed
eyes confessed it all, confessed the deep peace he found in it.  They
only didn't tell me why he had not written to me, nor clear up as yet a
minor obscurity.  Flora after a while again lifted the glass from the
ledge of the box and elegantly swept the house with it.  Then, by the
mere instinct of her grace, a motion but half conscious, she inclined her
head into the void with the sketch of a salute, producing, I could see, a
perfect imitation of response to some homage.  Dawling and I looked at
each other again; the tears came into his eyes.  She was playing at
perfection still, and her misfortune only simplified the process.

I recognised that this was as near as I should ever come, certainly as I
should come that night, to pressing on her misfortune.  Neither of us
would name it more than we were doing then, and Flora would never name it
at all.  Little by little I saw that what had occurred was, strange as it
might appear, the best thing for her happiness.  The question was now
only of her beauty and her being seen and marvelled at; with Dawling to
do for her everything in life her activity was limited to that.  Such an
activity was all within her scope; it asked nothing of her that she
couldn't splendidly give.  As from time to time in our delicate communion
she turned her face to me with the parody of a look I lost none of the
signs of its strange new glory.  The expression of the eyes was a rub of
pastel from a master's thumb; the whole head, stamped with a sort of
showy suffering, had gained a fineness from what she had passed through.
Yes, Flora was settled for life--nothing could hurt her further.  I
foresaw the particular praise she would mostly incur--she would be
invariably "interesting."  She would charm with her pathos more even than
she had charmed with her pleasure.  For herself above all she was fixed
for ever, rescued from all change and ransomed from all doubt.  Her old
certainties, her old vanities were justified and sanctified, and in the
darkness that had closed upon her one object remained clear.  That
object, as unfading as a mosaic mask, was fortunately the loveliest she
could possibly look upon.  The greatest blessing of all was of course
that Dawling thought so.  Her future was ruled with the straightest line,
and so for that matter was his.  There were two facts to which before I
left my friends I gave time to sink into my spirit.  One was that he had
changed by some process as effective as Flora's change, had been
simplified somehow into service as she had been simplified into success.
He was such a picture of inspired intervention as I had never yet
conceived: he would exist henceforth for the sole purpose of rendering
unnecessary, or rather impossible, any reference even on her own part to
his wife's infirmity.  Oh yes, how little desire he would ever give _me_
to refer to it!  He principally after a while made me feel--and this was
my second lesson--that, good-natured as he was, my being there to see it
all oppressed him; so that by the time the act ended I recognised that I
too had filled out my hour.  Dawling remembered things; I think he caught
in my very face the irony of old judgments: they made him thresh about in
his chair.  I said to Flora as I took leave of her that I would come to
see her, but I may mention that I never went.  I'd go to-morrow if I hear
she wants me; but what in the world can she ever want?  As I quitted them
I laid my hand on Dawling's arm, and drew him for a moment into the
lobby.

"Why did you never write to me of your marriage?"

He smiled uncomfortably, showing his long yellow teeth and something
more.  "I don't know--the whole thing gave me such a tremendous lot to
do."

This was the first dishonest speech I had heard him make: he really
hadn't written because an idea that I would think him a still bigger fool
than before.  I didn't insist, but I tried there in the lobby, so far as
a pressure of his hand could serve me, to give him a notion of what I
thought him.  "I can't at any rate make out," I said, "why I didn't hear
from Mrs. Meldrum."

"She didn't write to you?"

"Never a word.  What has become of her?"

"I think she's at Folkestone," Dawling returned; "but I'm sorry to say
that practically she has ceased to see us."

"You haven't quarrelled with her?"

"How _could_ we?  Think of all we owe her.  At the time of our marriage,
and for months before, she did everything for us: I don't know how we
should have managed without her.  But since then she has never been near
us and has given us rather markedly little encouragement to keep up
relations with her."

I was struck with this, though of course I admit I am struck with all
sorts of things.  "Well," I said after a moment, "even if I could imagine
a reason for that attitude it wouldn't explain why she shouldn't have
taken account of my natural interest."

"Just so."  Dawling's face was a windowless wall.  He could contribute
nothing to the mystery and, quitting him, I carried it away.  It was not
till I went down to ace Mrs. Meldrum that was really dispelled.  She
didn't want to hear of them or to talk of them, not a bit, and it was
just in the same spirit that she hadn't wanted to write of them.  She had
done everything in the world for them, but now, thank heaven, the hard
business was over.  After I had taken this in, which I was quick to do,
we quite avoided the subject.  She simply couldn't bear it.





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