Glasses, by Henry James

II

Flora Saunt, the only daughter of an old soldier, had lost both her parents, her mother within a few months. Mrs. Meldrum had known them, disapproved of them, considerably avoided them: she had watched the girl, off and on, from her early childhood. Flora, just twenty, was extraordinarily alone in the world — so alone that she had no natural chaperon, no one to stay with but a mercenary stranger, Mrs. Hammond Synge, the sister-in-law of one of the young men I had just seen. She had lots of friends, but none of them nice: she kept picking up impossible people. The Floyd–Taylors, with whom she had been at Boulogne, were simply horrid. The Hammond Synges were perhaps not so vulgar, but they had no conscience in their dealings with her.

“She knows what I think of them,” said Mrs. Meldrum, “and indeed she knows what I think of most things.”

“She shares that privilege with most of your friends!” I replied laughing.

“No doubt; but possibly to some of my friends it makes a little difference. That girl doesn’t care a button. She knows best of all what I think of Flora Saunt.”

“And what may your opinion be?”

“Why, that she’s not worth talking about — an idiot too abysmal.”

“Doesn’t she care for that?”

“Just enough, as you saw, to hug me till I cry out. She’s too pleased with herself for anything else to matter.”

“Surely, my dear friend,” I rejoined, “she has a good deal to be pleased with!”

“So every one tells her, and so you would have told her if I had given you a chance. However, that doesn’t signify either, for her vanity is beyond all making or mending. She believes in herself, and she’s welcome, after all, poor dear, having only herself to look to. I’ve seldom met a young woman more completely at liberty to be silly. She has a clear course — she’ll make a showy finish.”

“Well,” I replied, “as she probably will reduce many persons to the same degraded state, her partaking of it won’t stand out so much.”

“If you mean that the world’s full of twaddlers I quite agree with you!” cried Mrs. Meldrum, trumpeting her laugh half across the Channel.

I had after this to consider a little what she would call my mother’s son, but I didn’t let it prevent me from insisting on her making me acquainted with Flora Saunt; indeed I took the bull by the horns, urging that she had drawn the portrait of a nature which common charity now demanded that she should put into relation with a character really fine. Such a frail creature was just an object of pity. This contention on my part had at first of course been jocular; but strange to say it was quite the ground I found myself taking with regard to our young lady after I had begun to know her. I couldn’t have said what I felt about her except that she was undefended; from the first of my sitting with her there after dinner, under the stars — that was a week at Folkestone of balmy nights and muffled tides and crowded chairs — I became aware both that protection was wholly absent from her life and that she was wholly indifferent to its absence.

The odd thing was that she was not appealing: she was abjectly, divinely conceited, absurdly, fantastically happy. Her beauty was as yet all the world to her, a world she had plenty to do to live in. Mrs. Meldrum told me more about her, and there was nothing that, as the centre of a group of giggling, nudging spectators, she was not ready to tell about herself. She held her little court in the crowd, upon the grass, playing her light over Jews and Gentiles, completely at ease in all promiscuities. It was an effect of these things that from the very first, with every one listening, I could mention that my main business with her would be just to have a go at her head and to arrange in that view for an early sitting. It would have been as impossible, I think, to be impertinent to her as it would have been to throw a stone at a plate-glass window; so any talk that went forward on the basis of her loveliness was the most natural thing in the world and immediately became the most general and sociable. It was when I saw all this that I judged how, though it was the last thing she asked for, what one would ever most have at her service was a curious compassion. That sentiment was coloured by the vision of the dire exposure of a being whom vanity had put so off her guard. Hers was the only vanity I have ever known that made its possessor superlatively soft. Mrs. Meldrum’s further information contributed moreover to these indulgences — her account of the girl’s neglected childhood and queer continental relegations, with straying, squabbling, Monte–Carlo-haunting parents; the more invidious picture, above all, of her pecuniary arrangement, still in force, with the Hammond Synges, who really, though they never took her out — practically she went out alone — had their hands half the time in her pocket. She had to pay for everything, down to her share of the wine-bills and the horses’ fodder, down to Bertie Hammond Synge’s fare in the “Underground” when he went to the City for her. She had been left with just money enough to turn her head; and it hadn’t even been put in trust, nothing prudent or proper had been done with it. She could spend her capital, and at the rate she was going, expensive, extravagant and with a swarm of parasites to help, it certainly wouldn’t last very long.

“Couldn’t you perhaps take her, independent, unencumbered as you are?” I asked of Mrs. Meldrum. “You’re probably, with one exception, the sanest person she knows, and you at least wouldn’t scandalously fleece her.”

“How do you know what I wouldn’t do?” my humorous friend demanded. “Of course I’ve thought how I can help her — it has kept me awake at night. But I can’t help her at all; she’ll take nothing from me. You know what she does — she hugs me and runs away. She has an instinct about me, she feels that I’ve one about her. And then she dislikes me for another reason that I’m not quite clear about, but that I’m well aware of and that I shall find out some day. So far as her settling with me goes it would be impossible moreover here: she wants naturally enough a much wider field. She must live in London — her game is there. So she takes the line of adoring me, of saying she can never forget that I was devoted to her mother — which I wouldn’t for the world have been — and of giving me a wide berth. I think she positively dislikes to look at me. It’s all right; there’s no obligation; though people in general can’t take their eyes off me.”

“I see that at this moment,” I replied. “But what does it matter where or how, for the present, she lives? She’ll marry infallibly, marry early, and everything then will change.”

“Whom will she marry?” my companion gloomily asked.

“Any one she likes. She’s so abnormally pretty she can do anything. She’ll fascinate some nabob or some prince.”

“She’ll fascinate him first and bore him afterwards. Moreover she’s not so pretty as you make her out; she has a scrappy little figure.”

“No doubt; but one doesn’t in the least notice it.”

“Not now,” said Mrs. Meldrum, “but one will when she’s older.”

“When she’s older she’ll be a princess, so it won’t matter.”

“She has other drawbacks,” my companion went on. “Those wonderful eyes are good for nothing but to roll about like sugar-balls — which they greatly resemble — in a child’s mouth. She can’t use them.”

“Use them? Why, she does nothing else.”

“To make fools of young men, but not to read or write, not to do any sort of work. She never opens a book, and her maid writes her notes. You’ll say that those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Of course I know that if I didn’t wear my goggles I shouldn’t be good for much.”

“Do you mean that Miss Saunt ought to sport such things?” I exclaimed with more horror than I meant to show.

“I don’t prescribe for her; I don’t know that they’re what she requires.”

“What’s the matter with her eyes?” I asked after a moment.

“I don’t exactly know; but I heard from her mother years ago that even as a child they had had for a while to put her into spectacles and that, though she hated them and had been in a fury of disgust, she would always have to be extremely careful. I’m sure I hope she is!”

I echoed the hope, but I remember well the impression this made upon me — my immediate pang of resentment, a disgust almost equal to Flora’s own. I felt as if a great rare sapphire had split in my hand.

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