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Chapter 7

I don't remember how soon it was I spoke to Geoffrey Dawling; his
sittings were irregular, but it was certainly the very next time he
gave me one.

"Has any rumour ever reached you of Miss Saunt's having anything
the matter with her eyes?" He stared with a candour that was a
sufficient answer to my question, backing it up with a shocked and
mystified "Never!" Then I asked him if he had observed in her any
symptom, however disguised, of embarrassed sight; on which, after a
moment's thought, he exclaimed "Disguised?" as if my use of that
word had vaguely awakened a train. "She's not a bit myopic," he
said; "she doesn't blink or contract her lids." I fully recognised
this and I mentioned that she altogether denied the impeachment;
owing it to him moreover to explain the ground of my inquiry, I
gave him a sketch of the incident that had taken place before me at
the shop. He knew all about Lord Iffield; that nobleman had
figured freely in our conversation as his preferred, his injurious
rival. Poor Dawling's contention was that if there had been a
definite engagement between his lordship and the young lady, the
sort of thing that was announced in the Morning Post, renunciation
and retirement would be comparatively easy to him; but that having
waited in vain for any such assurance he was entitled to act as if
the door were not really closed or were at any rate not cruelly
locked. He was naturally much struck with my anecdote and still
more with my interpretation of it.

"There IS something, there IS something--possibly something very
grave, certainly something that requires she should make use of
artificial aids. She won't admit it publicly, because with her
idolatry of her beauty, the feeling she is all made up of, she sees
in such aids nothing but the humiliation and the disfigurement.
She has used them in secret, but that is evidently not enough, for
the affection she suffers from, apparently some definite menace,
has lately grown much worse. She looked straight at me in the
shop, which was violently lighted, without seeing it was I. At the
same distance, at Folkestone, where as you know I first met her,
where I heard this mystery hinted at and where she indignantly
denied the thing, she appeared easily enough to recognise people.
At present she couldn't really make out anything the shop-girl
showed her. She has successfully concealed from the man I saw her
with that she resorts in private to a pince-nez and that she does
so not only under the strictest orders from her oculist, but
because literally the poor thing can't accomplish without such help
half the business of life. Iffield however has suspected
something, and his suspicions, whether expressed or kept to
himself, have put him on the watch. I happened to have a glimpse
of the movement at which he pounced on her and caught her in the
act."

I had thought it all out; my idea explained many things, and
Dawling turned pale as he listened to me.

"Was he rough with her?" he anxiously asked.

"How can I tell what passed between them? I fled from the place."

My companion stared. "Do you mean to say her eyesight's going?"

"Heaven forbid! In that case how could she take life as she does?"

"How DOES she take life? That's the question!" He sat there
bewilderedly brooding; the tears rose to his lids; they reminded me
of those I had seen in Flora's the day I risked my enquiry. The
question he had asked was one that to my own satisfaction I was
ready to answer, but I hesitated to let him hear as yet all that my
reflections had suggested. I was indeed privately astonished at
their ingenuity. For the present I only rejoined that it struck me
she was playing a particular game; at which he went on as if he
hadn't heard me, suddenly haunted with a fear, lost in the dark
possibility. "Do you mean there's a danger of anything very bad?"

"My dear fellow, you must ask her special adviser."

"Who in the world is her special adviser?"

"I haven't a conception. But we mustn't get too excited. My
impression would be that she has only to observe a few ordinary
rules, to exercise a little common sense."

Dawling jumped at this. "I see--to stick to the pince-nez."

"To follow to the letter her oculist's prescription, whatever it is
and at whatever cost to her prettiness. It's not a thing to be
trifled with."

"Upon my honour it SHAN'T be!" he roundly declared; and he adjusted
himself to his position again as if we had quite settled the
business. After a considerable interval, while I botched away, he
suddenly said: "Did they make a great difference?"

"A great difference?"

"Those things she had put on."

"Oh the glasses--in her beauty? She looked queer of course, but it
was partly because one was unaccustomed. There are women who look
charming in nippers. What, at any rate, if she does look queer?
She must be mad not to accept that alternative."

"She IS mad," said Geoffrey Dawling.

"Mad to refuse you, I grant. Besides," I went on, "the pince-nez,
which was a large and peculiar one, was all awry: she had half
pulled it off, but it continued to stick, and she was crimson, she
was angry."

"It must have been horrible!" my companion groaned.

"It WAS horrible. But it's still more horrible to defy all
warnings; it's still more horrible to be landed in--" Without
saying in what I disgustedly shrugged my shoulders.

After a glance at me Dawling jerked round. "Then you do believe
that she may be?"

I hesitated. "The thing would be to make HER believe it. She only
needs a good scare."

"But if that fellow is shocked at the precautions she does take?"

"Oh who knows?" I rejoined with small sincerity. "I don't suppose
Iffield is absolutely a brute."

"I would take her with leather blinders, like a shying mare!" cried
Geoffrey Dawling.

I had an impression that Iffield wouldn't, but I didn't communicate
it, for I wanted to pacify my friend, whom I had discomposed too
much for the purposes of my sitting. I recollect that I did some
good work that morning, but it also comes back to me that before we
separated he had practically revealed to me that my anecdote,
connecting itself in his mind with a series of observations at the
time unconscious and unregistered, had covered with light the
subject of our colloquy. He had had a formless perception of some
secret that drove Miss Saunt to subterfuges, and the more he
thought of it the more he guessed this secret to be the practice of
making believe she saw when she didn't and of cleverly keeping
people from finding out how little she saw. When one pieced things
together it was astonishing what ground they covered. Just as he
was going away he asked me from what source at Folkestone the
horrid tale had proceeded. When I had given him, as I saw no
reason not to do, the name of Mrs. Meldrum he exclaimed: "Oh I
know all about her; she's a friend of some friends of mine!" At
this I remembered wilful Betty and said to myself that I knew some
one who would probably prove more wilful still.

Henry James

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