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Chapter 9

She left me, after she had been introduced, in no suspense about
her present motive; she was on the contrary in a visible fever to
enlighten me; but I promptly learned that for the alarm with which
she pitiably panted our young man was not accountable. She had but
one thought in the world, and that thought was for Lord Iffield. I
had the strangest saddest scene with her, and if it did me no other
good it at least made me at last completely understand why
insidiously, from the first, she had struck me as a creature of
tragedy. In showing me the whole of her folly it lifted the
curtain of her misery. I don't know how much she meant to tell me
when she came--I think she had had plans of elaborate
misrepresentation; at any rate she found it at the end of ten
minutes the simplest way to break down and sob, to be wretched and
true. When she had once begun to let herself go the movement took
her off her feet; the relief of it was like the cessation of a
cramp. She shared in a word her long secret, she shifted her sharp
pain. She brought, I confess, tears to my own eyes, tears of
helpless tenderness for her helpless poverty. Her visit however
was not quite so memorable in itself as in some of its
consequences, the most immediate of which was that I went that
afternoon to see Geoffrey Dawling, who had in those days rooms in
Welbeck Street, where I presented myself at an hour late enough to
warrant the supposition that he might have come in. He had not
come in, but he was expected, and I was invited to enter and wait
for him: a lady, I was informed, was already in his sitting-room.
I hesitated, a little at a loss: it had wildly coursed through my
brain that the lady was perhaps Flora Saunt. But when I asked if
she were young and remarkably pretty I received so significant a
"No sir!" that I risked an advance and after a minute in this
manner found myself, to my astonishment, face to face with Mrs.
Meldrum.

"Oh you dear thing," she exclaimed, "I'm delighted to see you: you
spare me another compromising demarche! But for this I should have
called on you also. Know the worst at once: if you see me here
it's at least deliberate--it's planned, plotted, shameless. I came
up on purpose to see him, upon my word I'm in love with him. Why,
if you valued my peace of mind, did you let him the other day at
Folkestone dawn upon my delighted eyes? I found myself there in
half an hour simply infatuated with him. With a perfect sense of
everything that can be urged against him I hold him none the less
the very pearl of men. However, I haven't come up to declare my
passion--I've come to bring him news that will interest him much
more. Above all I've come to urge upon him to be careful."

"About Flora Saunt?"

"About what he says and does: he must be as still as a mouse!
She's at last really engaged."

"But it's a tremendous secret?" I was moved to mirth.

"Precisely: she wired me this noon, and spent another shilling to
tell me that not a creature in the world is yet to know it."

"She had better have spent it to tell you that she had just passed
an hour with the creature you see before you."

"She has just passed an hour with every one in the place!" Mrs.
Meldrum cried. "They've vital reasons, she says, for it's not
coming out for a month. Then it will be formally announced, but
meanwhile her rejoicing is wild. I daresay Mr. Dawling already
knows and, as it's nearly seven o'clock, may have jumped off London
Bridge. But an effect of the talk I had with him the other day was
to make me, on receipt of my telegram, feel it to be my duty to
warn him in person against taking action, so to call it, on the
horrid certitude which I could see he carried away with him. I had
added somehow to that certitude. He told me what you had told him
you had seen in your shop."

Mrs. Meldrum, I perceived, had come to Welbeck Street on an errand
identical with my own--a circumstance indicating her rare sagacity,
inasmuch as her ground for undertaking it was a very different
thing from what Flora's wonderful visit had made of mine. I
remarked to her that what I had seen in the shop was sufficiently
striking, but that I had seen a great deal more that morning in my
studio. "In short," I said, "I've seen everything."

She was mystified. "Everything?"

"The poor creature is under the darkest of clouds. Oh she came to
triumph, but she remained to talk something in the nature of sense!
She put herself completely in my hands--she does me the honour to
intimate that of all her friends I'm the most disinterested. After
she had announced to me that Lord Iffield was utterly committed to
her and that for the present I was absolutely the only person in
the secret, she arrived at her real business. She had had a
suspicion of me ever since that day at Folkestone when I asked her
for the truth about her eyes. The truth is what you and I both
guessed. She's in very bad danger."

"But from what cause? I, who by God's mercy have kept mine, know
everything that can be known about eyes," said Mrs. Meldrum.

"She might have kept hers if she had profited by God's mercy, if
she had done in time, done years ago, what was imperatively ordered
her; if she hadn't in fine been cursed with the loveliness that was
to make her behaviour a thing of fable. She may still keep her
sight, or what remains of it, if she'll sacrifice--and after all so
little--that purely superficial charm. She must do as you've done;
she must wear, dear lady, what you wear!"

What my companion wore glittered for the moment like a melon-frame
in August. "Heaven forgive her--now I understand!" She flushed
for dismay.

But I wasn't afraid of the effect on her good nature of her thus
seeing, through her great goggles, why it had always been that
Flora held her at such a distance. "I can't tell you," I said,
"from what special affection, what state of the eye, her danger
proceeds: that's the one thing she succeeded this morning in
keeping from me. She knows it herself perfectly; she has had the
best advice in Europe. 'It's a thing that's awful, simply awful'--
that was the only account she would give me. Year before last,
while she was at Boulogne, she went for three days with Mrs. Floyd-
Taylor to Paris. She there surreptitiously consulted the greatest
man--even Mrs. Floyd-Taylor doesn't know. Last autumn in Germany
she did the same. 'First put on certain special spectacles with a
straight bar in the middle: then we'll talk'--that's practically
what they say. What SHE says is that she'll put on anything in
nature when she's married, but that she must get married first.
She has always meant to do everything as soon as she's married.
Then and then only she'll be safe. How will any one ever look at
her if she makes herself a fright? How could she ever have got
engaged if she had made herself a fright from the first? It's no
use to insist that with her beauty she can never BE a fright. She
said to me this morning, poor girl, the most characteristic, the
most harrowing things. 'My face is all I have--and SUCH a face! I
knew from the first I could do anything with it. But I needed it
all--I need it still, every exquisite inch of it. It isn't as if I
had a figure or anything else. Oh if God had only given me a
figure too, I don't say! Yes, with a figure, a really good one,
like Fanny Floyd-Taylor's, who's hideous, I'd have risked plain
glasses. Que voulez-vous? No one is perfect.' She says she still
has money left, but I don't believe a word of it. She has been
speculating on her impunity, on the idea that her danger would hold
off: she has literally been running a race with it. Her theory
has been, as you from the first so clearly saw, that she'd get in
ahead. She swears to me that though the 'bar' is too cruel she
wears when she's alone what she has been ordered to wear. But when
the deuce is she alone? It's herself of course that she has
swindled worst: she has put herself off, so insanely that even her
conceit but half accounts for it, with little inadequate
concessions, little false measures and preposterous evasions and
childish hopes. Her great terror is now that Iffield, who already
has suspicions, who has found out her pince-nez but whom she has
beguiled with some unblushing hocus-pocus, may discover the
dreadful facts; and the essence of what she wanted this morning was
in that interest to square me, to get me to deny indignantly and
authoritatively (for isn't she my 'favourite sitter?') that she has
anything in life the matter with any part of her. She sobbed, she
'went on,' she entreated; after we got talking her extraordinary
nerve left her and she showed me what she has been through--showed
me also all her terror of the harm I could do her. 'Wait till I'm
married! wait till I'm married!' She took hold of me, she almost
sank on her knees. It seems to me highly immoral, one's
participation in her fraud; but there's no doubt that she must be
married: I don't know what I don't see behind it! Therefore," I
wound up, "Dawling must keep his hands off."

Mrs. Meldrum had held her breath; she gave out a long moan. "Well,
that's exactly what I came here to tell him."

"Then here he is." Our host, all unprepared, his latchkey still in
his hand, had just pushed open the door and, startled at finding
us, turned a frightened look from one to the other, wondering what
disaster we were there to announce or avert.

Mrs. Meldrum was on the spot all gaiety. "I've come to return your
sweet visit. Ah," she laughed, "I mean to keep up the
acquaintance!"

"Do--do," he murmured mechanically and absently, continuing to look
at us. Then he broke out: "He's going to marry her."

I was surprised. "You already know?"

He produced an evening paper, which he tossed down on the table.
"It's in that."

"Published--already?" I was still more surprised.

"Oh Flora can't keep a secret!"--Mrs. Meldrum made it light. She
went up to poor Dawling and laid a motherly hand upon him.

"It's all right--it's just as it ought to be: don't think about
her ever any more." Then as he met this adjuration with a stare
from which thought, and of the most defiant and dismal, fairly
protruded, the excellent woman put up her funny face and tenderly
kissed him on the cheek.

Henry James

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