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Chapter 4

One day in the course of the following June there was ushered into
my studio a gentleman whom I had not yet seen but with whom I had
been very briefly in correspondence. A letter from him had
expressed to me some days before his regret on learning that my
"splendid portrait" of Miss Flora Louisa Saunt, whose full name
figured by her own wish in the catalogue of the exhibition of the
Academy, had found a purchaser before the close of the private
view. He took the liberty of inquiring whether I might have at his
service some other memorial of the same lovely head, some
preliminary sketch, some study for the picture. I had replied that
I had indeed painted Miss Saunt more than once and that if he were
interested in my work I should be happy to show him what I had
done. Mr. Geoffrey Dawling, the person thus introduced to me,
stumbled into my room with awkward movements and equivocal sounds--
a long, lean, confused, confusing young man, with a bad complexion
and large protrusive teeth. He bore in its most indelible pressure
the postmark, as it were, of Oxford, and as soon as he opened his
mouth I perceived, in addition to a remarkable revelation of gums,
that the text of the queer communication matched the registered
envelope. He was full of refinements and angles, of dreary and
distinguished knowledge. Of his unconscious drollery his dress
freely partook; it seemed, from the gold ring into which his red
necktie was passed to the square toe-caps of his boots, to conform
with a high sense of modernness to the fashion before the last.
There were moments when his overdone urbanity, all suggestive
stammers and interrogative quavers, made him scarcely intelligible;
but I felt him to be a gentleman and I liked the honesty of his
errand and the expression of his good green eyes.

As a worshipper at the shrine of beauty, however, he needed
explaining, especially when I found he had no acquaintance with my
brilliant model; had on the mere evidence of my picture taken, as
he said, a tremendous fancy to her looks. I ought doubtless to
have been humiliated by the simplicity of his judgment of them, a
judgment for which the rendering was lost in the subject, quite
leaving out the element of art. He was like the innocent reader
for whom the story is "really true" and the author a negligible
quantity. He had come to me only because he wanted to purchase,
and I remember being so amused at his attitude, which I had never
seen equally marked in a person of education, that I asked him why,
for the sort of enjoyment he desired, it wouldn't be more to the
point to deal directly with the lady. He stared and blushed at
this; the idea clearly alarmed him. He was an extraordinary case--
personally so modest that I could see it had never occurred to him.
He had fallen in love with a painted sign and seemed content just
to dream of what it stood for. He was the young prince in the
legend or the comedy who loses his heart to the miniature of the
princess beyond seas. Until I knew him better this puzzled me
much--the link was so missing between his sensibility and his type.
He was of course bewildered by my sketches, which implied in the
beholder some sense of intention and quality; but for one of them,
a comparative failure, he ended by conceiving a preference so
arbitrary and so lively that, taking no second look at the others,
he expressed his wish to possess it and fell into the extremity of
confusion over the question of price. I helped him over that
stile, and he went off without having asked me a direct question
about Miss Saunt, yet with his acquisition under his arm. His
delicacy was such that he evidently considered his rights to be
limited; he had acquired none at all in regard to the original of
the picture. There were others--for I was curious about him--that
I wanted him to feel I conceded: I should have been glad of his
carrying away a sense of ground acquired for coming back. To
ensure this I had probably only to invite him, and I perfectly
recall the impulse that made me forbear. It operated suddenly from
within while he hung about the door and in spite of the diffident
appeal that blinked in his gentle grin. If he was smitten with
Flora's ghost what mightn't be the direct force of the luminary
that could cast such a shadow? This source of radiance, flooding
my poor place, might very well happen to be present the next time
he should turn up. The idea was sharp within me that there were
relations and complications it was no mission of mine to bring
about. If they were to develop they should develop in their very
own sense.

Let me say at once that they did develop and that I perhaps after
all had something to do with it. If Mr. Dawling had departed
without a fresh appointment he was to reappear six months later
under protection no less powerful than that of our young lady
herself. I had seen her repeatedly for months: she had grown to
regard my studio as the temple of her beauty. This miracle was
recorded and celebrated there as nowhere else; in other places
there was occasional reference to other subjects of remark. The
degree of her presumption continued to be stupefying; there was
nothing so extraordinary save the degree in which she never paid
for it. She was kept innocent, that is she was kept safe, by her
egotism, but she was helped also, though she had now put off her
mourning, by the attitude of the lone orphan who had to be a law
unto herself. It was as a lone orphan that she came and went, as a
lone orphan that she was the centre of a crush. The neglect of the
Hammond Synges gave relief to this character, and she made it worth
their while to be, as every one said, too shocking. Lord Iffield
had gone to India to shoot tigers, but he returned in time for the
punctual private view: it was he who had snapped up, as Flora
called it, the gem of the exhibition. My hope for the girl's
future had slipped ignominiously off his back, but after his
purchase of the portrait I tried to cultivate a new faith. The
girl's own faith was wonderful. It couldn't however be contagious:
too great was the limit of her sense of what painters call values.
Her colours were laid on like blankets on a cold night. How indeed
could a person speak the truth who was always posturing and
bragging? She was after all vulgar enough, and by the time I had
mastered her profile and could almost with my eyes shut do it in a
single line I was decidedly tired of its "purity," which affected
me at last as inane. One moved with her, moreover, among phenomena
mismated and unrelated; nothing in her talk ever matched anything
out of it. Lord Iffield was dying of love for her, but his family
was leading him a life. His mother, horrid woman, had told some
one that she would rather he should be swallowed by a tiger than
marry a girl not absolutely one of themselves. He had given his
young friend unmistakable signs, but was lying low, gaining time:
it was in his father's power to be, both in personal and in
pecuniary ways, excessively nasty to him. His father wouldn't last
for ever--quite the contrary; and he knew how thoroughly, in spite
of her youth, her beauty and the swarm of her admirers, some of
them positively threatening in their passion, he could trust her to
hold out. There were richer, cleverer men, there were greater
personages too, but she liked her "little viscount" just as he was,
and liked to think that, bullied and persecuted, he had her there
so gratefully to rest upon. She came back to me with tale upon
tale, and it all might be or mightn't. I never met my pretty model
in the world--she moved, it appeared, in exalted circles--and could
only admire, in her wealth of illustration, the grandeur of her
life and the freedom of her hand.

I had on the first opportunity spoken to her of Geoffrey Dawling,
and she had listened to my story so far as she had the art of such
patience, asking me indeed more questions about him than I could
answer; then she had capped my anecdote with others much more
striking, the disclosure of effects produced in the most
extraordinary quarters: on people who had followed her into
railway carriages; guards and porters even who had literally stuck
there; others who had spoken to her in shops and hung about her
house door; cabmen, upon her honour, in London, who, to gaze their
fill at her, had found excuses to thrust their petrifaction through
the very glasses of four-wheelers. She lost herself in these
reminiscences, the moral of which was that poor Mr. Dawling was
only one of a million. When therefore the next autumn she
flourished into my studio with her odd companion at her heels her
first care was to make clear to me that if he was now in servitude
it wasn't because she had run after him. Dawling explained with a
hundred grins that when one wished very much to get anything one
usually ended by doing so--a proposition which led me wholly to
dissent and our young lady to asseverate that she hadn't in the
least wished to get Mr. Dawling. She mightn't have wished to get
him, but she wished to show him, and I seemed to read that if she
could treat him as a trophy her affairs were rather at the ebb.
True there always hung from her belt a promiscuous fringe of
scalps. Much at any rate would have come and gone since our
separation in July. She had spent four months abroad, where, on
Swiss and Italian lakes, in German cities, in the French capital,
many accidents might have happened.

Henry James

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