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Chapter 3

This conversation occurred the night before I went back to town. I
settled on the morrow to take a late train, so that I had still my
morning to spend at Folkestone, where during the greater part of it
I was out with my mother. Every one in the place was as usual out
with some one else, and even had I been free to go and take leave
of her I should have been sure that Flora Saunt would not be at
home. Just where she was I presently discovered: she was at the
far end of the cliff, the point at which it overhangs the pretty
view of Sandgate and Hythe. Her back, however, was turned to this
attraction; it rested with the aid of her elbows, thrust slightly
behind her so that her scanty little shoulders were raised toward
her ears, on the high rail that inclosed the down. Two gentlemen
stood before her whose faces we couldn't see but who even as
observed from the rear were visibly absorbed in the charming
figure-piece submitted to them. I was freshly struck with the fact
that this meagre and defective little person, with the cock of her
hat and the flutter of her crape, with her eternal idleness, her
eternal happiness, her absence of moods and mysteries and the
pretty presentation of her feet, which especially now in the
supported slope of her posture occupied with their imperceptibility
so much of the foreground--I was reminded anew, I say, how our
young lady dazzled by some art that the enumeration of her merits
didn't explain and that the mention of her lapses didn't affect.
Where she was amiss nothing counted, and where she was right
everything did. I say she was wanting in mystery, but that after
all was her secret. This happened to be my first chance of
introducing her to my mother, who had not much left in life but the
quiet look from under the hood of her chair at the things which,
when she should have quitted those she loved, she could still trust
to make the world good for them. I wondered an instant how much
she might be moved to trust Flora Saunt, and then while the chair
stood still and she waited I went over and asked the girl to come
and speak to her. In this way I saw that if one of Flora's
attendants was the inevitable young Hammond Synge, master of
ceremonies of her regular court, always offering the use of a
telescope and accepting that of a cigar, the other was a personage
I had not yet encountered, a small pale youth in showy
knickerbockers, whose eyebrows and nose and the glued points of
whose little moustache were extraordinarily uplifted and sustained.
I remember taking him at first for a foreigner and for something of
a pretender: I scarce know why unless because of the motive I felt
in the stare he fixed on me when I asked Miss Saunt to come away.
He struck me a little as a young man practising the social art of
impertinence; but it didn't matter, for Flora came away with
alacrity, bringing all her prettiness and pleasure and gliding over
the grass in that rustle of delicate mourning which made the
endless variety of her garments, as a painter could take heed,
strike one always as the same obscure elegance. She seated herself
on the floor of my mother's chair, a little too much on her right
instep as I afterwards gathered, caressing her still hand, smiling
up into her cold face, commending and approving her without a
reserve and without a doubt. She told her immediately, as if it
were something for her to hold on by, that she was soon to sit to
me for a "likeness," and these words gave me a chance to enquire if
it would be the fate of the picture, should I finish it, to be
presented to the young man in the knickerbockers. Her lips, at
this, parted in a stare; her eyes darkened to the purple of one of
the shadow-patches on the sea. She showed for the passing instant
the face of some splendid tragic mask, and I remembered for the
inconsequence of it what Mrs. Meldrum had said about her sight. I
had derived from this lady a worrying impulse to catechise her, but
that didn't seem exactly kind; so I substituted another question,
inquiring who the pretty young man in knickerbockers might happen
to be.

"Oh a gentleman I met at Boulogne. He has come over to see me."
After a moment she added: "Lord Iffield."

I had never heard of Lord Iffield, but her mention of his having
been at Boulogne helped me to give him a niche. Mrs. Meldrum had
incidentally thrown a certain light on the manners of Mrs. Floyd-
Taylor, Flora's recent hostess in that charming town, a lady who,
it appeared, had a special vocation for helping rich young men to
find a use for their leisure. She had always one or other in hand
and had apparently on this occasion pointed her lesson at the rare
creature on the opposite coast. I had a vague idea that Boulogne
was not a resort of the world's envied; at the same time there
might very well have been a strong attraction there even for one of
the darlings of fortune. I could perfectly understand in any case
that such a darling should be drawn to Folkestone by Flora Saunt.
But it was not in truth of these things I was thinking; what was
uppermost in my mind was a matter which, though it had no sort of
keeping, insisted just then on coming out.

"Is it true, Miss Saunt," I suddenly demanded, "that you're so
unfortunate as to have had some warning about your beautiful eyes?"

I was startled by the effect of my words; the girl threw back her
head, changing colour from brow to chin. "True? Who in the world
says so?" I repented of my question in a flash; the way she met it
made it seem cruel, and I felt my mother look at me in some
surprise. I took care, in answer to Flora's challenge, not to
incriminate Mrs. Meldrum. I answered that the rumour had reached
me only in the vaguest form and that if I had been moved to put it
to the test my very real interest in her must be held responsible.
Her blush died away, but a pair of still prettier tears glistened
in its track. "If you ever hear such a thing said again you can
say it's a horrid lie!" I had brought on a commotion deeper than
any I was prepared for; but it was explained in some degree by the
next words she uttered: "I'm happy to say there's nothing the
matter with any part of me whatever, not the least little thing!"
She spoke with her habitual complacency, with triumphant assurance;
she smiled again, and I could see how she wished that she hadn't so
taken me up. She turned it off with a laugh. "I've good eyes,
good teeth, a good digestion and a good temper. I'm sound of wind
and limb!" Nothing could have been more characteristic than her
blush and her tears, nothing less acceptable to her than to be
thought not perfect in every particular. She couldn't submit to
the imputation of a flaw. I expressed my delight in what she told
me, assuring her I should always do battle for her; and as if to
rejoin her companions she got up from her place on my mother's
toes. The young men presented their backs to us; they were leaning
on the rail of the cliff. Our incident had produced a certain
awkwardness, and while I was thinking of what next to say she
exclaimed irrelevantly: "Don't you know? He'll be Lord
Considine." At that moment the youth marked for this high destiny
turned round, and she spoke to my mother. "I'll introduce him to
you--he's awfully nice." She beckoned and invited him with her
parasol; the movement struck me as taking everything for granted.
I had heard of Lord Considine and if I had not been able to place
Lord Iffield it was because I didn't know the name of his eldest
son. The young man took no notice of Miss Saunt's appeal; he only
stared a moment and then on her repeating it quietly turned his
back. She was an odd creature: she didn't blush at this; she only
said to my mother apologetically, but with the frankest sweetest
amusement, "You don't mind, do you? He's a monster of shyness!"
It was as if she were sorry for every one--for Lord Iffield, the
victim of a complaint so painful, and for my mother, the subject of
a certain slight. "I'm sure I don't want him!" said my mother, but
Flora added some promise of how she would handle him for his
rudeness. She would clearly never explain anything by any failure
of her own appeal. There rolled over me while she took leave of us
and floated back to her friends a wave of superstitious dread. I
seemed somehow to see her go forth to her fate, and yet what should
fill out this orb of a high destiny if not such beauty and such
joy? I had a dim idea that Lord Considine was a great proprietor,
and though there mingled with it a faint impression that I
shouldn't like his son the result of the two images was a whimsical
prayer that the girl mightn't miss her possible fortune.

Henry James

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