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Chapter 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"All alone?"

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

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

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

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

Henry James

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