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Chapter 13

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.

Henry James

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