Glasses, by Henry James

XIII

She gave me the smile once more as over her shoulder, from her chair, she turned her face to me. “Here you are again!” she exclaimed with her disgloved hand put up a little backward for me to take. I dropped into a chair just behind her and, having taken it and noted that one of the curtains of the box would make the demonstration sufficiently private, bent my lips over it and impressed them on its finger-tips. It was given me however, to my astonishment, to feel next that all the privacy in the world couldn’t have sufficed to mitigate the start with which she greeted this free application of my moustache: the blood had jumped to her face, she quickly recovered her hand and jerked at me, twisting herself round, a vacant, challenging stare. During the next few instants several extraordinary things happened, the first of which was that now I was close to them the eyes of loveliness I had come up to look into didn’t show at all the conscious light I had just been pleased to see them flash across the house: they showed on the contrary, to my confusion, a strange, sweet blankness, an expression I failed to give a meaning to until, without delay, I felt on my arm, directed to it as if instantly to efface the effect of her start, the grasp of the hand she had impulsively snatched from me. It was the irrepressible question in this grasp that stopped on my lips all sound of salutation. She had mistaken my entrance for that of another person, a pair of lips without a moustache. She was feeling me to see who I was! With the perception of this and of her not seeing me I sat gaping at her and at the wild word that didn’t come, the right word to express or to disguise my stupefaction. What was the right word to commemorate one’s sudden discovery, at the very moment too at which one had been most encouraged to count on better things, that one’s dear old friend had gone blind? Before the answer to this question dropped upon me — and the moving moments, though few, seemed many — I heard, with the sound of voices, the click of the attendant’s key on the other side of the door. Poor Flora heard also, and with the hearing, still with her hand on my arm, she brightened again as I had a minute since seen her brighten across the house: she had the sense of the return of the person she had taken me for — the person with the right pair of lips, as to whom I was for that matter much more in the dark than she. I gasped, but my word had come: if she had lost her sight it was in this very loss that she had found again her beauty. I managed to speak while we were still alone, before her companion had appeared. “You’re lovelier at this day than you have ever been in your life!” At the sound of my voice and that of the opening of the door her excitement broke into audible joy. She sprang up, recognising me, always holding me, and gleefully cried to a gentleman who was arrested in the doorway by the sight of me: “He has come back, he has come back, and you should have heard what he says of me!” The gentleman was Geoffrey Dawling, and I thought it best to let him hear on the spot. “How beautiful she is, my dear man — but how extraordinarily beautiful! More beautiful at this hour than ever, ever before!”

It gave them almost equal pleasure and made Dawling blush up to his eyes; while this in turn produced, in spite of deepened astonishment, a blessed snap of the strain that I had been under for some moments. I wanted to embrace them both, and while the opening bars of another scene rose from the orchestra I almost did embrace Dawling, whose first emotion on beholding me had visibly and ever so oddly been a consciousness of guilt. I had caught him somehow in the act, though that was as yet all I knew; but by the time we had sunk noiselessly into our chairs again (for the music was supreme, Wagner passed first) my demonstration ought pretty well to have given him the limit of the criticism he had to fear. I myself indeed, while the opera blazed, was only too afraid he might divine in our silent closeness the very moral of my optimism, which was simply the comfort I had gathered from seeing that if our companion’s beauty lived again her vanity partook of its life. I had hit on the right note — that was what eased me off: it drew all pain for the next half-hour from the sense of the deep darkness in which the stricken woman sat there. If the music, in that darkness, happily soared and swelled for her, it beat its wings in unison with those of a gratified passion. A great deal came and went between us without profaning the occasion, so that I could feel at the end of twenty minutes as if I knew almost everything he might in kindness have to tell me; knew even why Flora, while I stared at her from the stalls, had misled me by the use of ivory and crystal and by appearing to recognise me and smile. She leaned back in her chair in luxurious ease: I had from the first become aware that the way she fingered her pearls was a sharp image of the wedded state. Nothing of old had seemed wanting to her assurance; but I hadn’t then dreamed of the art with which she would wear that assurance as a married woman. She had taken him when everything had failed; he had taken her when she herself had done so. His embarrassed eyes confessed it all, confessed the deep peace he found in it. They only didn’t tell me why he had not written to me, nor clear up as yet a minor obscurity. Flora after a while again lifted the glass from the ledge of the box and elegantly swept the house with it. Then, by the mere instinct of her grace, a motion but half conscious, she inclined her head into the void with the sketch of a salute, producing, I could see, a perfect imitation of a response to some homage. Dawling and I looked at each other again: the tears came into his eyes. She was playing at perfection still, and her misfortune only simplified the process.

I recognised that this was as near as I should ever come, certainly as I should come that night, to pressing on her misfortune. Neither of us would name it more than we were doing then, and Flora would never name it at all. Little by little I perceived that what had occurred was, strange as it might appear, the best thing for her happiness. The question was now only of her beauty and her being seen and marvelled at: with Dawling to do for her everything in life her activity was limited to that. Such an activity was all within her scope: it asked nothing of her that she couldn’t splendidly give. As from time to time in our delicate communion she turned her face to me with the parody of a look I lost none of the signs of its strange new glory. The expression of the eyes was a bit of pastel put in by a master’s thumb; the whole head, stamped with a sort of showy suffering, had gained a fineness from what she had passed through. Yes, Flora was settled for life — nothing could hurt her further. I foresaw the particular praise she would mostly incur — she would be incomparably “interesting.” She would charm with her pathos more even than she had charmed with her pleasure. For herself above all she was fixed for ever, rescued from all change and ransomed from all doubt. Her old certainties, her old vanities were justified and sanctified, and in the darkness that had closed upon her one object remained clear. That object, as unfading as a mosaic mask, was fortunately the loveliest she could possibly look upon. The greatest blessing of all was of course that Dawling thought so. Her future was ruled with the straightest line, and so for that matter was his. There were two facts to which before I left my friends I gave time to sink into my spirit. One of them was that he had changed by some process as effective as Flora’s change; had been simplified somehow into service as she had been simplified into success. He was such a picture of inspired intervention as I had never yet encountered: he would exist henceforth for the sole purpose of rendering unnecessary, or rather impossible, any reference even on her own part to his wife’s infirmity. Oh yes, how little desire he would ever give me to refer to it! He principally after a while made me feel — and this was my second lesson — that, good-natured as he was, my being there to see it all oppressed him; so that by the time the act ended I recognised that I too had filled out my hour. Dawling remembered things; I think he caught in my very face the irony of old judgments: they made him thresh about in his chair. I said to Flora as I took leave of her that I would come to see her; but I may mention that I never went. I’ll go to-morrow if I hear she wants me; but what in the world can she ever want? As I quitted them I laid my hand on Dawling’s arm and drew him for a moment into the lobby.

“Why did you never write to me of your marriage?”

He smiled uncomfortably, showing his long yellow teeth and something more. “I don’t know — the whole thing gave me such a tremendous lot to do.”

This was the first dishonest speech I had heard him make: he really hadn’t written to me because he had an idea I would think him a still bigger fool than before. I didn’t insist, but I tried there, in the lobby, so far as a pressure of his hand could serve me, to give him a notion of what I thought him. “I can’t at any rate make out,” I said, “why I didn’t hear from Mrs. Mel-drum.”

“She didn’t write to you?”

“Never a word. What has become of her?”

“I think she’s at Folkestone,” Dawling returned; “but I’m sorry to say that practically she has ceased to see us.”

“You haven’t quarrelled with her?”

“How could we? Think of all we owe her. At the time of our marriage, and for months before, she did everything for us: I don’t know how we should have managed without her. But since then she has never been near us and has given us rather markedly little encouragement to try and keep up our relations with her.”

I was struck with this though of course I admit I am struck with all sorts of things. “Well,” I said after a moment, “even if I could imagine a reason for that attitude it wouldn’t explain why she shouldn’t have taken account of my natural interest.”

“Just so.” Dawling’s face was a windowless wall. He could contribute nothing to the mystery, and, quitting him, I carried it away. It was not till I went down to see Mrs. Meldrum that it was really dispelled. She didn’t want to hear of them or to talk of them, not a bit, and it was just in the same spirit that she hadn’t wanted to write of them. She had done everything in the world for them, but now, thank heaven, the hard business was over. After I had taken this in, which I was quick to do, we quite avoided the subject. She simply couldn’t bear it.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38