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Chapter 12


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.

Henry James

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