Glasses, by Henry James

VIII

A few days later I again heard Dawling on my stairs, and even before he passed my threshold I knew he had something to tell me.

“I’ve been down to Folkestone — it was necessary I should see her!” I forget whether he had come straight from the station; he was at any rate out of breath with his news, which it took me however a minute to interpret.

“You mean that you’ve been with Mrs. Mel-drum?”

“Yes; to ask her what she knows and how she comes to know it. It worked upon me awfully — I mean what you told me.” He made a visible effort to seem quieter than he was, and it showed me sufficiently that he had not been reassured. I laid, to comfort him and smiling at a venture, a friendly hand on his arm, and he dropped into my eyes, fixing them an instant, a strange, distended look which might have expressed the cold clearness of all that was to come. “I know — now!” he said with an emphasis he rarely used.

“What then did Mrs. Meldrum tell you?”

“Only one thing that signified, for she has no real knowledge. But that one thing was everything.”

“What is it then?”

“Why, that she can’t bear the sight of her.” His pronouns required some arranging, but after I had successfully dealt with them I replied that I knew perfectly Miss Saunt had a trick of turning her back on the good lady of Folkestone. But what did that prove? “Have you never guessed? I guessed as soon as she spoke!” Dawling towered over me in dismal triumph. It was the first time in our acquaintance that, intellectually speaking, this had occurred; but even so remarkable an incident still left me sufficiently at sea to cause him to continue: “Why, the effect of those spectacles!”

I seemed to catch the tail of his idea. “Mrs. Meldrum’s?”

“They’re so awfully ugly and they increase so the dear woman’s ugliness.” This remark began to flash a light, and when he quickly added “She sees herself, she sees her own fate!” my response was so immediate that I had almost taken the words out of his mouth. While I tried to fix this sudden image of Flora’s face glazed in and cross-barred even as Mrs. Meldrum’s was glazed and barred, he went on to assert that only the horror of that image, looming out at herself, could be the reason of her avoiding such a monitress. The fact he had encountered made everything hideously vivid and more vivid than anything else that just such another pair of goggles was what would have been prescribed to Flora.

“I see — I see,” I presently rejoined. “What would become of Lord Iffield if she were suddenly to come out in them? What indeed would become of every one, what would become of everything?” This was an inquiry that Dawling was evidently unprepared to meet, and I completed it by saying at last: “My dear fellow, for that matter, what would become of you?

Once more he turned on me his good green eyes. “Oh, I shouldn’t mind!”

The tone of his words somehow made his ugly face beautiful, and I felt that there dated from this moment in my heart a confirmed affection for him. None the less, at the same time, perversely and rudely, I became aware of a certain drollery in our discussion of such alternatives. It made me laugh out and say to him while I laughed: “You’d take her even with those things of Mrs. Meldrum’s?”

He remained mournfully grave; I could see that he was surprised at my rude mirth. But he summoned back a vision of the lady at Folkestone and conscientiously replied: “Even with those things of Mrs. Meldrum’s.” I begged him not to think my laughter in bad taste: it was only a practical recognition of the fact that we had built a monstrous castle in the air. Didn’t he see on what flimsy ground the structure rested? The evidence was preposterously small. He believed the worst, but we were utterly ignorant.

“I shall find out the truth,” he promptly replied.

“How can you? If you question her you’ll simply drive her to perjure herself. Wherein after all does it concern you to know the truth? It’s the girl’s own affair.”

“Then why did you tell me your story?”

I was a trifle embarrassed. “To warn you off,” I returned smiling. He took no more notice of these words than presently to remark that Lord Iffield had no serious intentions. “Very possibly,” I said. “But you mustn’t speak as if Lord Iffield and you were her only alternatives.”

Dawling thought a moment. “Wouldn’t the people she has consulted give some information? She must have been to people. How else can she have been condemned?”

“Condemned to what? Condemned to perpetual nippers? Of course she has consulted some of the big specialists, but she has done it, you may be sure, in the most clandestine manner; and even if it were supposable that they would tell you anything — which I altogether doubt — you would have great difficulty in finding out which men they are. Therefore leave it alone; never show her what you suspect.”

I even, before he quitted me, asked him to promise me this. “All right, I promise,” he said gloomily enough. He was a lover who could tacitly grant the proposition that there was no limit to the deceit his loved one was ready to practise: it made so remarkably little difference. I could see that from this moment he would be filled with a passionate pity ever so little qualified by a sense of the girl’s fatuity and folly. She was always accessible to him — that I knew; for if she had told him he was an idiot to dream she could dream of him, she would have resented the imputation of having failed to make it clear that she would always be glad to regard him as a friend. What were most of her friends — what were all of them — but repudiated idiots? I was perfectly aware that in her conversations and confidences I myself for instance had a niche in the gallery. As regards poor Dawling I knew how often he still called on the Hammond Synges. It was not there but under the wing of the Floyd–Taylors that her intimacy with Lord Iffield most flourished. At all events when a week after the visit I have just summarised Flora’s name was one morning brought up to me I jumped at the conclusion that Dawling had been with her and even I fear briefly entertained the thought that he had broken his word.

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