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Chapter 1

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.

Henry James

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