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Chapter 5

I had been again with my mother, but except Mrs. Meldrum and the
gleam of France had not found at Folkestone my old resources and
pastimes. Mrs. Meldrum, much edified by my report of the
performances, as she called them, in my studio, had told me that to
her knowledge Flora would soon be on the straw: she had cut from
her capital such fine fat slices that there was almost nothing more
left to swallow. Perched on her breezy cliff the good lady dazzled
me as usual by her universal light: she knew so much more about
everything and everybody than I could ever squeeze out of my
colour-tubes. She knew that Flora was acting on system and
absolutely declined to be interfered with: her precious reasoning
was that her money would last as long as she should need it, that a
magnificent marriage would crown her charms before she should be
really pinched. She had a sum put by for a liberal outfit;
meanwhile the proper use of the rest was to decorate her for the
approaches to the altar, keep her afloat in the society in which
she would most naturally meet her match. Lord Iffield had been
seen with her at Lucerne, at Cadenabbia; but it was Mrs. Meldrum's
conviction that nothing was to be expected of him but the most
futile flirtation. The girl had a certain hold of him, but with a
great deal of swagger he hadn't the spirit of a sheep: he was in
fear of his father and would never commit himself in Lord
Considine's lifetime. The most Flora might achieve was that he
wouldn't marry some one else. Geoffrey Dawling, to Mrs. Meldrum's
knowledge (I had told her of the young man's visit) had attached
himself on the way back from Italy to the Hammond Synge group. My
informant was in a position to be definite about this dangler; she
knew about his people; she had heard of him before. Hadn't he been
a friend of one of her nephews at Oxford? Hadn't he spent the
Christmas holidays precisely three years before at her brother-in-
law's in Yorkshire, taking that occasion to get himself refused
with derision by wilful Betty, the second daughter of the house?
Her sister, who liked the floundering youth, had written to her to
complain of Betty, and that the young man should now turn up as an
appendage of Flora's was one of those oft-cited proofs that the
world is small and that there are not enough people to go round.
His father had been something or other in the Treasury; his
grandfather on the mother's side had been something or other in the
Church. He had come into the paternal estate, two or three
thousand a year in Hampshire; but he had let the place
advantageously and was generous to four plain sisters who lived at
Bournemouth and adored him. The family was hideous all round, but
the very salt of the earth. He was supposed to be unspeakably
clever; he was fond of London, fond of books, of intellectual
society and of the idea of a political career. That such a man
should be at the same time fond of Flora Saunt attested, as the
phrase in the first volume of Gibbon has it, the variety of his
inclinations. I was soon to learn that he was fonder of her than
of all the other things together. Betty, one of five and with
views above her station, was at any rate felt at home to have
dished herself by her perversity. Of course no one had looked at
her since and no one would ever look at her again. It would be
eminently desirable that Flora should learn the lesson of Betty's
fate.

I was not struck, I confess, with all this in my mind, by any
symptom on our young lady's part of that sort of meditation. The
one moral she saw in anything was that of her incomparable aspect,
which Mr. Dawling, smitten even like the railway porters and the
cabmen by the doom-dealing gods, had followed from London to Venice
and from Venice back to London again. I afterwards learned that
her version of this episode was profusely inexact: his personal
acquaintance with her had been determined by an accident remarkable
enough, I admit, in connexion with what had gone before--a
coincidence at all events superficially striking. At Munich,
returning from a tour in the Tyrol with two of his sisters, he had
found himself at the table d'hote of his inn opposite to the full
presentment of that face of which the mere clumsy copy had made him
dream and desire. He had been tossed by it to a height so
vertiginous as to involve a retreat from the board; but the next
day he had dropped with a resounding thud at the very feet of his
apparition. On the following, with an equal incoherence, a
sacrifice even of his bewildered sisters, whom he left behind, he
made an heroic effort to escape by flight from a fate of which he
had already felt the cold breath. That fate, in London, very
little later, drove him straight before it--drove him one Sunday
afternoon, in the rain, to the door of the Hammond Synges. He
marched in other words close up to the cannon that was to blow him
to pieces. But three weeks, when he reappeared to me, had elapsed
since then, yet (to vary my metaphor) the burden he was to carry
for the rest of his days was firmly lashed to his back. I don't
mean by this that Flora had been persuaded to contract her scope; I
mean that he had been treated to the unconditional snub which, as
the event was to show, couldn't have been bettered as a means of
securing him. She hadn't calculated, but she had said "Never!" and
that word had made a bed big enough for his long-legged patience.
He became from this moment to my mind the interesting figure in the
piece.

Now that he had acted without my aid I was free to show him this,
and having on his own side something to show me he repeatedly
knocked at my door. What he brought with him on these occasions
was a simplicity so huge that, as I turn my ear to the past, I seem
even now to hear it bumping up and down my stairs. That was really
what I saw of him in the light of his behaviour. He had fallen in
love as he might have broken his leg, and the fracture was of a
sort that would make him permanently lame. It was the whole man
who limped and lurched, with nothing of him left in the same
position as before. The tremendous cleverness, the literary
society, the political ambition, the Bournemouth sisters all seemed
to flop with his every movement a little nearer to the floor. I
hadn't had an Oxford training and I had never encountered the great
man at whose feet poor Dawling had most submissively sat and who
had addressed him his most destructive sniffs; but I remember
asking myself how effectively this privilege had supposed itself to
prepare him for the career on which my friend appeared now to have
embarked. I remember too making up my mind about the cleverness,
which had its uses and I suppose in impenetrable shades even its
critics, but from which the friction of mere personal intercourse
was not the sort of process to extract a revealing spark. He
accepted without a question both his fever and his chill, and the
only thing he touched with judgment was this convenience of my
friendship. He doubtless told me his simple story, but the matter
comes back in a kind of sense of my being rather the mouthpiece, of
my having had to put it together for him. He took it from me in
this form without a groan, and I gave it him quite as it came; he
took it again and again, spending his odd half-hours with me as if
for the very purpose of learning how idiotically he was in love.
He told me I made him see things: to begin with, hadn't I first
made him see Flora Saunt? I wanted him to give her up and lucidly
informed him why; on which he never protested nor contradicted,
never was even so alembicated as to declare just for the sake of
the point that he wouldn't. He simply and pointlessly didn't, and
when at the end of three months I asked him what was the use of
talking with such a fellow his nearest approach to a justification
was to say that what made him want to help her was just the
deficiencies I dwelt on. I could only reply without gross
developments: "Oh if you're as sorry for her as that!" I too was
nearly as sorry for her as that, but it only led me to be sorrier
still for other victims of this compassion. With Dawling as with
me the compassion was at first in excess of any visible motive; so
that when eventually the motive was supplied each could to a
certain extent compliment the other on the fineness of his
foresight.

After he had begun to haunt my studio Miss Saunt quite gave it up,
and I finally learned that she accused me of conspiring with him to
put pressure on her to marry him. She didn't know I would take it
that way, else she would never have brought him to see me. It was
in her view a part of the conspiracy that to show him a kindness I
asked him at last to sit to me. I dare say moreover she was
disgusted to hear that I had ended by attempting almost as many
sketches of his beauty as I had attempted of hers. What was the
value of tributes to beauty by a hand that could so abase itself?
My relation to poor Dawling's want of modelling was simple enough.
I was really digging in that sandy desert for the buried treasure
of his soul.

Henry James

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