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Dunstone's Dear Lady

The story of Dunstone is so slight, so trivial in its cardinal
incidents, such a business of cheap feathers and bits of ribbon on the
surface, that I should hesitate to tell it, were it not for its
Inwardness, what one might call the symbolism of the thing. Frankly, I
do not clearly see what that symbolism is, but I feel it hovering in
some indefinable way whenever I recall his case. It is one of those
things that make a man extend his arm and twiddle his fingers, and say,
blinking, "Like _that_, you know." So do not imagine for one moment that
this is a shallow story, simply because it is painted, so to speak, not
in heart's blood but in table claret.

Dunstone was a strong, quiet kind of man--a man of conspicuous
mediocrity, and rising rapidly, therefore, in his profession. He was
immensely industrious, and a little given to melancholia in private
life. He smoked rather too many cigars, and took his social occasions
seriously. He dressed faultlessly, with a scrupulous elimination of
style. Unlike Mr. Grant Allen's ideal man, he was not constitutionally a
lover; indeed, he seemed not to like the ordinary girl at all--found her
either too clever or too shallow, lacking a something. I don't think
_he_ knew quite what it was. Neither do I--it is a case for extended
hand and twiddling fingers. Moreover, I don't think the ordinary girl
took to Dunstone very much.

He suffered, I fancy, from a kind of mental greyness; he was all subtle
tones; the laughter of girls jarred upon him; foolish smartness or
amiable foolishness got on his nerves; he detested, with equal
sincerity, bright dressing, artistic dabbling, piety, and the glow of
health. And when, as his confidential friend--confidential, that is, so
far as his limits allowed--I heard that he intended to marry, I was
really very much surprised.

I expected something quintessential; I was surprised to find she was a
visiting governess. Harringay, the artist, thought there was nothing in
her, but Sackbut, the art critic, was inclined to admire her bones. For
my own part, I took rather a liking to her. She was small and thin, and,
to be frank, I think it was because she hardly got enough to eat--of the
delicate food she needed. She was shabby, too, dressed in rusty
mourning--she had recently lost her mother. But she had a sweet, low
voice, a shrinking manner, rather a graceful carriage, I thought, and,
though she spoke rarely, all she said was sweet and sane. She struck me
as a refined woman in a blatant age. The general effect of her upon me
was favourable; upon Dunstone it was tremendous. He lost a considerable
proportion of his melancholia, and raved at times like a common man. He
called her in particular his "Dear Lady" and his "Sweet Lady," things
that I find eloquent of what he found in her. What that was I fancy I
understand, and yet I cannot say it quite. One has to resort to the
extended arm and fingers vibratile.

Before he married her--which he did while she was still in
half-mourning--there was anxiety about her health, and I understood she
needed air and exercise and strengthening food. But she recovered
rapidly after her marriage, her eyes grew brighter, we saw less of
Sackbut's "delicious skeleton." And then, in the strangest way, she
began to change. It is none of my imagining; I have heard the change
remarked upon by half a dozen independent observers. Yet you would think
a girl of three-and-twenty (as she certainly was) had attained her
development as a woman. I have heard her compared to a winter bud, cased
in its sombre scales, until the sun shone, and the warm, moist winds
began to blow. I noticed first that the delicate outline of her cheek
was filling, and then came the time when she reverted to colour in her
dress.

Her first essays were charitably received. Her years of struggle, her
year of mourning, had no doubt dwarfed her powers in this direction;
presently her natural good taste would reassert itself. But the next
effort and the next were harder to explain. It was not the note of
nervousness or inexperience we saw; there was an undeniable decision,
and not a token of shame. The little black winter bud grew warm-coloured
above, and burst suddenly into extravagant outlines and chromatic
confusion. Harringay, who is a cad, first put what we were all feeling
into words. "I've just seen Dunstone and his donah," he said. Clearly
she was one of those rare women who cannot dress. And that was not all.
A certain buoyancy, hitherto unsuspected, crept into her manner, as the
corpuscles multiplied in her veins--an archness. She talked more, and
threw up a spray of playfulness. And, with a growing energy, she began
to revise the exquisite æsthetic balance of Dunstone's house. She even
enamelled a chair.

For a year or so I was in the East. When I returned Mrs. Dunstone amazed
me. In some odd way she had grown, she had positively grown. She was
taller, broader, brighter--infinitely brighter. She wore a diamond
brooch in the afternoon. The "delicious skeleton" had vanished in
plumpness. She moved with emphasis. Her eye--which glittered--met mine
bravely, and she talked as one who would be heard. In the old days you
saw nothing but a rare timid glance from under the pretty lids. She
talked now of this and that, of people of "good family," and the
difficulty of getting a suitable governess for her little boy. She said
she objected to meeting people "one would not care to invite to one's
house." She swamped me with tea and ruled the conversation, so that
Dunstone and I, who were once old friends, talked civil twaddle for the
space of one hour--theatres, concerts, and assemblies chiefly--and then
parted again. The furniture had all been altered--there were two "cosy
nooks" in the room after the recipe in the _Born Lady_. It was plain to
me, it is plain to everyone, I find, that Mrs. Dunstone is, in the sun
of prosperity, rapidly developing an extremely florid vulgarity. And
afterwards I discovered that she had forgotten her music, and evidently
enjoyed her meals. Yet I for one can witness that five years ago there
was _that_ about her--I can only extend my arm with quivering digits.
But it was something very sweet and dainty, something that made her
white and thoughtful, and marked her off from the rest of womankind. I
sometimes fancy it may have been anæmia in part, but it was certainly
poverty and mourning in the main.

You may think that this is a story of disillusionment. When I first
heard the story, I thought so too. But, so far as Dunstone goes, that is
not the case. It is rare that I see him now, but the other day we smoked
two cigars apiece together. And in a moment of confidence he spoke of
her. He said how anxious he felt for her health, called her his "Dainty
Little Lady," and spoke of the coarseness of other women. I am afraid
this is not a very eventful story, and yet there is _that_----That very
convenient gesture, an arm protruded and flickering fingers, conveys my
meaning best. Perhaps you will understand.


H.G. Wells