I have spoken of these reminiscences as of a row of coloured beads, and I confess that as I continue to straighten out my chaplet I am rather proud of the comparison. The beads are all there, as I said — they slip along the string in their small, smooth roundness. Geoffrey Daw-ling accepted like a gentleman the event his evening paper had proclaimed; in view of which I snatched a moment to murmur him a hint to offer Mrs. Meldrum his hand. He returned me a heavy head-shake, and I judged that marriage would henceforth strike him very much as the traffic of the street may strike some poor incurable at the window of an hospital. Circumstances arising at this time promptly led to my making an absence from England, and circumstances already existing offered him a solid basis for similar action. He had after all the usual resource of a Briton — he could take to his boats.
He started on a journey round the globe, and I was left with nothing but my inference as to what might have happened. Later observation however only confirmed my belief that if at any time during the couple of months that followed Flora Saunt’s brilliant engagement he had made up, as they say, to the good lady of Folkestone, that good lady would not have pushed him over the cliff. Strange as she was to behold I knew of cases in which she had been obliged to administer that shove. I went to New York to paint a couple of portraits; but I found, once on the spot, that I had counted without Chicago, where I was invited to blot out this harsh discrimination by the production of no less than ten. I spent a year in America and should probably have spent a second had I not been summoned back to England by alarming news from my mother. Her strength had failed, and as soon as I reached London I hurried down to Folkestone, arriving just at the moment to offer a welcome to some slight symptom of a rally. She had been much worse, but she was now a little better; and though I found nothing but satisfaction in having come to her I saw after a few hours that my London studio, where arrears of work had already met me, would be my place to await whatever might next occur. Before returning to town however I had every reason to sally forth in search of Mrs. Meldrum, from whom, in so many months, I had not had a line, and my view of whom, with the adjacent objects, as I had left them, had been intercepted by a luxuriant foreground.
Before I had gained her house I met her, as I supposed, coming toward me across the down, greeting me from afar with the familiar twinkle of her great vitreous badge; and as it was late in the autumn and the esplanade was a blank I was free to acknowledge this signal by cutting a caper on the grass. My enthusiasm dropped indeed the next moment, for it had taken me but a few seconds to perceive that the person thus assaulted had by no means the figure of my military friend. I felt a shock much greater than any I should have thought possible as on this person’s drawing near I identified her as poor little Flora Saunt. At what moment Flora had recognised me belonged to an order of mysteries over which, it quickly came home to me, one would never linger again: I could intensely reflect that once we were face to face it chiefly mattered that I should succeed in looking still more intensely unastonished. All I saw at first was the big gold bar crossing each of her lenses, over which something convex and grotesque, like the eyes of a large insect, something that now represented her whole personality, seemed, as out of the orifice of a prison, to strain forward and press. The face had shrunk away: it looked smaller, appeared even to look plain; it was at all events, so far as the effect on a spectator was concerned, wholly sacrificed to this huge apparatus of sight. There was no smile in it, and she made no motion to take my offered hand.
“I had no idea you were down here!” I exclaimed; and I wondered whether she didn’t know me at all or knew me only by my voice.
“You thought I was Mrs. Meldrum,” she very quietly remarked.
It was the quietness itself that made me feel the necessity of an answer almost violently gay. “Oh yes,” I laughed, “you have a tremendous deal in common with Mrs. Meldrum! I’ve just returned to England after a long absence and I’m on my way to see her. Won’t you come with me?” It struck me that her old reason for keeping clear of our friend was well disposed of now.
“I’ve just left her; I’m staying with her.” She stood solemnly fixing me with her goggles. “Would you like to paint me now?” she asked. She seemed to speak, with intense gravity, from behind a mask or a cage.
There was nothing to do but to treat the question with the same exuberance. “It would be a fascinating little artistic problem!” That something was wrong it was not difficult to perceive; but a good deal more than met the eye might be presumed to be wrong if Flora was under Mrs. Meldrum’s roof. I had not for a year had much time to think of her, but my imagination had had sufficient warrant for lodging her in more gilded halls. One of the last things I had heard before leaving England was that in commemoration of the new relationship she had gone to stay with Lady Considine. This had made me take everything else for granted, and the noisy American world had deafened my ears to possible contradictions. Her spectacles were at present a direct contradiction; they seemed a negation not only of new relationships but of every old one as well. I remember nevertheless that when after a moment she walked beside me on the grass I found myself nervously hoping she wouldn’t as yet at any rate tell me anything very dreadful; so that to stave off this danger I harried her with questions about Mrs. Meldrum and, without waiting for replies, became profuse on the subject of my own doings. My companion was completely silent, and I felt both as if she were watching my nervousness with a sort of sinister irony and as if I were talking to some different, strange person. Flora plain and obscure and soundless was no Flora at all. At Mrs. Meldrum’s door she turned off with the observation that as there was certainly a great deal I should have to say to our friend she had better not go in with me. I looked at her again — I had been keeping my eyes away from her — but only to meet her magnified stare. I greatly desired in truth to see Mrs. Meldrum alone, but there was something so pitiful in the girl’s predicament that I hesitated to fall in with this idea of dropping her. Yet one couldn’t express a compassion without seeming to take too much wretchedness for granted. I reflected that I must really figure to her as a fool, which was an entertainment I had never expected to give her. It rolled over me there for the first time — it has come back to me since — that there is, strangely, in very deep misfortune a dignity finer even than in the most inveterate habit of being all right. I couldn’t have to her the manner of treating it as a mere detail that I was face to face with a part of what, at our last meeting, we had had such a scene about; but while I was trying to think of some manner that I could have she said quite colourlessly, yet somehow as if she might never see me again: “Goodbye. I’m going to take my walk.”
She looked round the great bleak cliff-top. “With whom should I go? Besides, I like to be alone — for the present.”
This gave me the glimmer of a vision that she regarded her disfigurement as temporary, and the confidence came to me that she would never, for her happiness, cease to be a creature of illusions. It enabled me to exclaim, smiling brightly and feeling indeed idiotic: “Oh, I shall see you again! But I hope you’ll have a very pleasant walk.”
“All my walks are very pleasant, thank you — they do me such a lot of good.” She was as quiet as a mouse, and her words seemed to me stupendous in their wisdom. “I take several a day,” she continued. She might have been an ancient woman responding with humility at the church door to the patronage of the parson. “The more I take the better I feel. I’m ordered by the doctors to keep all the while in the air and go in for plenty of exercise. It keeps up my general health, you know, and if that goes on improving as it has lately done everything will soon be all right. All that was the matter with me before — and always; it was too reckless! — was that I neglected my general health. It acts directly on the state of the particular organ. So I’m going three miles.”
I grinned at her from the doorstep while Mrs. Meldrum’s maid stood there to admit me. “Oh, I’m so glad,” I said, looking at her as she paced away with the pretty flutter she had kept and remembering the day when, while she rejoined Lord Iffield, I had indulged in the same observation. Her air of assurance was on this occasion not less than it had been on that; but I recalled that she had then struck me as marching off to her doom. Was she really now marching away from it?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56