by Henry James
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.
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
"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
"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
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.
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
"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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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."
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
"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?
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
"And what does her husband think?"
"Her husband? What husband?"
"Hasn't she then married Lord Iffield?"
"Vous-en-etes le?" cried my hostess. "Why he behaved like a
"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
"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
"Indeed he has, and borne it like a hero. He told me all about
"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
"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
"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.
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.
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.
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.