Glasses, by Henry James

VII

I don’t remember how soon it was I spoke to Geoffrey Dawling; his sittings were irregular, but it was certainly the very next time he gave me one.

“Has any rumour ever reached you of Miss Saunt’s having anything the matter with her eyes?” He stared with a candour that was a sufficient answer to my question, backing it up with a shocked and mystified “Never!” Then I asked him if he had observed in her any symptom, however disguised, of embarrassed sight: on which, after a moment’s thought, he exclaimed “Disguised?” as if my use of that word had vaguely awakened a train. “She’s not a bit myopic,” he said; “she doesn’t blink or contract her lids.” I fully recognised this and I mentioned that she altogether denied the impeachment; owing it to him moreover to explain the ground of my inquiry, I gave him a sketch of the incident that had taken place before me at the shop. He knew all about Lord Iffield: that nobleman had figured freely in our conversation as his preferred, his injurious rival. Poor Daw-ling’s contention was that if there had been a definite engagement between his lordship and the young lady, the sort of thing that was announced in The Morning Post, renunciation and retirement would be comparatively easy to him; but that having waited in vain for any such assurance he was entitled to act as if the door were not really closed or were at any rate not cruelly locked. He was naturally much struck with my anecdote and still more with my interpretation of it.

“There is something, there is something — possibly something very grave, certainly something that requires she should make use of artificial aids. She won’t admit it publicly, because with her idolatry of her beauty, the feeling she is all made up of, she sees in such aids nothing but the humiliation and the disfigurement. She has used them in secret, but that is evidently not enough, for the affection she suffers from, apparently some definite ailment, has lately grown much worse. She looked straight at me in the shop, which was violently lighted, without seeing it was I. At the same distance, at Folkestone, where as you know I first met her, where I heard this mystery hinted at and where she indignantly denied the thing, she appeared easily enough to recognise people. At present she couldn’t really make out anything the shop-girl showed her. She has successfully concealed from the man I saw her with that she resorts in private to a pince-nez and that she does so not only under the strictest orders from an oculist, but because literally the poor thing can’t accomplish without such help half the business of life. Iffield however has suspected something, and his suspicions, whether expressed or kept to himself, have put him on the watch. I happened to have a glimpse of the movement at which he pounced on her and caught her in the act.”

I had thought it all out; my idea explained many things, and Dawling turned pale as he listened to me.

“Was he rough with her?” he anxiously asked.

“How can I tell what passed between them? I fled from the place.”

My companion stared at me a moment. “Do you mean to say her eyesight’s going?”

“Heaven forbid! In that case how could she take life as she does?”

“How does she take life? That’s the question!” He sat there bewilderedly brooding; the tears had come into his eyes; they reminded me of those I had seen in Flora’s the day I risked my inquiry. The question he had asked was one that to my own satisfaction I was ready to answer, but I hesitated to let him hear as yet all that my reflections had suggested. I was indeed privately astonished at their ingenuity. For the present I only rejoined that it struck me she was playing a particular game; at which he went on as if he hadn’t heard me, suddenly haunted with a fear, lost in the dark possibility I had opened up: “Do you mean there’s a danger of anything very bad?” “My dear fellow, you must ask her oculist.” “Who in the world is her oculist?” “I haven’t a conception. But we mustn’t get too excited. My impression would be that she has only to observe a few ordinary rules, to exercise a little common sense.”

Dawling jumped at this. “I see — to stick to the pince-nez.”

“To follow to the letter her oculist’s prescription, whatever it is and at whatever cost to her prettiness. It’s not a thing to be trifled with.”

“Upon my honour it shan’t be trifled with!” he roundly declared; and he adjusted himself to his position again as if we had quite settled the business. After a considerable interval, while I botched away, he suddenly said: “Did they make a great difference?”

“A great difference?”

“Those things she had put on.”

“Oh, the glasses — in her beauty? She looked queer of course, but it was partly because one was unaccustomed. There are women who look charming in nippers. What, at any rate, if she does look queer? She must be mad not to accept that alternative.”

“She is mad,” said Geoffrey Dawling.

“Mad to refuse you, I grant. Besides,” I went on, “the pince-nez, which was a large and peculiar one, was all awry: she had half pulled it off, but it continued to stick, and she was crimson, she was angry.”

“It must have been horrible!” my companion murmured.

“It was horrible. But it’s still more horrible to defy all warnings; it’s still more horrible to be landed in — ” Without saying in what I disgustedly shrugged my shoulders.

After a glance at me Dawling jerked round. “Then you do believe that she may be?”

I hesitated. “The thing would be to make her believe it. She only needs a good scare.”

“But if that fellow is shocked at the precautions she does take?”

“Oh, who knows?” I rejoined with small sincerity. “I don’t suppose Iffield is absolutely a brute.”

“I would take her with leather blinders, like a shying mare!” cried Geoffrey Dawling.

I had an impression that Iffield wouldn’t, but I didn’t communicate it, for I wanted to pacify my friend, whom I had discomposed too much for the purposes of my sitting. I recollect that I did some good work that morning, but it also comes back to me that before we separated he had practically revealed to me that my anecdote, connecting itself in his mind with a series of observations at the time unconscious and unregistered, had covered with light the subject of our colloquy. He had had a formless perception of some secret that drove Miss Saunt to subterfuges, and the more he thought of it the more he guessed this secret to be the practice of making believe she saw when she didn’t and of cleverly keeping people from finding out how little she saw. When one patched things together it was astonishing what ground they covered. Just as he was going away he asked me from what source, at Folkestone, the horrid tale had proceeded. When I had given him, as I saw no reason not to do, the name of Mrs. Meldrum, he exclaimed: “Oh, I know all about her; she’s a friend of some friends of mine!” At this I remembered wilful Betty and said to myself that I knew some one who would probably prove more wilful still.

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