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Chapter 8

A few days later I again heard Dawling on my stairs, and even
before he passed my threshold I knew he had something to tell.

"I've been down to Folkestone--it was necessary I should see her!"
I forget whether he had come straight from the station; he was at
any rate out of breath with his news, which it took me however a
minute to apply.

"You mean that you've been with Mrs. Meldrum?"

"Yes, to ask her what she knows and how she comes to know it. It
worked upon me awfully--I mean what you told me." He made a
visible effort to seem quieter than he was, and it showed me
sufficiently that he had not been reassured. I laid, to comfort
him and smiling at a venture, a friendly hand on his arm, and he
dropped into my eyes, fixing them an instant, a strange distended
look which might have expressed the cold clearness of all that was
to come. "I KNOW--now!" he said with an emphasis he rarely used.

"What then did Mrs. Meldrum tell you?"

"Only one thing that signified, for she has no real knowledge. But
that one thing was everything."

"What is it then?"

"Why, that she can't bear the sight of her." His pronouns required
some arranging, but after I had successfully dealt with them I
replied that I was quite aware of Miss Saunt's trick of turning her
back on the good lady of Folkestone. Only what did that prove?
"Have you never guessed? I guessed as soon as she spoke!" Dawling
towered over me in dismal triumph. It was the first time in our
acquaintance that, on any ground of understanding this had
occurred; but even so remarkable an incident still left me
sufficiently at sea to cause him to continue: "Why, the effect of
those spectacles!"

I seemed to catch the tail of his idea. "Mrs. Meldrum's?"

"They're so awfully ugly and they add so to the dear woman's
ugliness." This remark began to flash a light, and when he quickly
added "She sees herself, she sees her own fate!" my response was so
immediate that I had almost taken the words out of his mouth.
While I tried to fix this sudden image of Flora's face glazed in
and cross-barred even as Mrs. Meldrum's was glazed and barred, he
went on to assert that only the horror of that image, looming out
at herself, could be the reason of her avoiding the person who so
forced it home. The fact he had encountered made everything
hideously vivid, and more vivid than anything else that just such
another pair of goggles was what would have been prescribed to
Flora.

"I see--I see," I presently returned. "What would become of Lord
Iffield if she were suddenly to come out in them? What indeed
would become of every one, what would become of everything?" This
was an enquiry that Dawling was evidently unprepared to meet, and I
completed it by saying at last: "My dear fellow, for that matter,
what would become of YOU?"

Once more he turned on me his good green eyes. "Oh I shouldn't
mind!"

The tone of his words somehow made his ugly face beautiful, and I
discovered at this moment how much I really liked him. None the
less, at the same time, perversely and rudely, I felt the droll
side of our discussion of such alternatives. It made me laugh out
and say to him while I laughed: "You'd take her even with those
things of Mrs. Meldrum's?"

He remained mournfully grave; I could see that he was surprised at
my rude mirth. But he summoned back a vision of the lady at
Folkestone and conscientiously replied: "Even with those things of
Mrs. Meldrum's." I begged him not to resent my laughter, which but
exposed the fact that we had built a monstrous castle in the air.
Didn't he see on what flimsy ground the structure rested? The
evidence was preposterously small. He believed the worst, but we
were really uninformed.

"I shall find out the truth," he promptly replied.

"How can you? If you question her you'll simply drive her to
perjure herself. Wherein after all does it concern you to know the
truth? It's the girl's own affair."

"Then why did you tell me your story?"

I was a trifle embarrassed. "To warn you off," I smiled. He took
no more notice of these words than presently to remark that Lord
Iffield had no serious intentions. "Very possibly," I said. "But
you mustn't speak as if Lord Iffield and you were her only
alternatives."

Dawling thought a moment. "Couldn't something be got out of the
people she has consulted? She must have been to people. How else
can she have been condemned?"

"Condemned to what? Condemned to perpetual nippers? Of course she
has consulted some of the big specialists, but she has done it, you
may be sure, in the most clandestine manner; and even if it were
supposable that they would tell you anything--which I altogether
doubt--you would have great difficulty in finding out which men
they are. Therefore leave it alone; never show her what you
suspect."

I even before he quitted me asked him to promise me this. "All
right, I promise"--but he was gloomy enough. He was a lover facing
the fact that there was no limit to the deceit his loved one was
ready to practise: it made so remarkably little difference. I
could see by what a stretch his passionate pity would from this
moment overlook the girl's fatuity and folly. She was always
accessible to him--that I knew; for if she had told him he was an
idiot to dream she could dream of him, she would have rebuked the
imputation of having failed to make it clear that she would always
be glad to regard him as a friend. What were most of her friends--
what were all of them--but repudiated idiots? I was perfectly
aware that in her conversations and confidences I myself for
instance had a niche in the gallery. As regards poor Dawling I
knew how often he still called on the Hammond Synges. It was not
there but under the wing of the Floyd-Taylors that her intimacy
with Lord Iffield most flourished. At all events, when a week
after the visit I have just summarised Flora's name was one morning
brought up to me, I jumped at the conclusion that Dawling had been
with her, and even I fear briefly entertained the thought that he
had broken his word.

Henry James

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