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Chapter 2

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
laughing.

"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
pleased with!"

"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
Channel.

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 fleece her."

"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
figure."

"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
requires."

"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
hand.

Henry James

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