As soon as I saw Mrs. Meldrum I broke out to her. “Is there anything in it? Is her general health —?”
Mrs. Meldrum interrupted me with her great amused blare. “You’ve already seen her and she has told you her wondrous tale? What’s ‘in it’ is what has been in everything she has ever done — the most comical, tragical belief in herself. She thinks she’s doing a ‘cure.’”
“And what does her husband think?”
“Her husband? What husband?”
“Hasn’t she then married Lord Iffield?”
“Vous-en-êtes là?” cried my hostess. “He behaved like a regular beast.”
“How should I know? You never wrote to me.”
Mrs. Meldrum hesitated, covering me with what poor Flora called the particular organ. “No, I didn’t write to you; and I abstained on purpose. If I didn’t I thought you mightn’t, over there, hear what had happened. If you should hear I was afraid you would stir up Mr. Dawling.”
“Stir him up?”
“Urge him to fly to the rescue; write out to him that there was another chance for him.”
“I wouldn’t have done it,” I said.
“Well,” Mrs. Meldrum replied, “it was not my business to give you an opportunity.”
“In short you were afraid of it.”
Again she hesitated and though it may have been only my fancy I thought she considerably reddened. At all events she laughed out. Then “I was afraid of it!” she very honestly answered.
“But doesn’t he know? Has he given no sign?”
“Every sign in life — he came straight back to her. He did everything to get her to listen to him; but she hasn’t the smallest idea of it.”
“Has he seen her as she is now?” I presently and just a trifle awkwardly inquired.
“Indeed he has, and borne it like a hero. He told me all about it.”
“How much you’ve all been through!” I ventured to ejaculate. “Then what has become of him?”
“He’s at home in Hampshire. He has got back his old place and I believe by this time his old sisters. It’s not half a bad little place.”
“Yet its attractions say nothing to Flora?”
“Oh, Flora’s by no means on her back!” my interlocutress laughed.
“She’s not on her back because she’s on yours. Have you got her for the rest of your life?”
Once more my hostess genially glared at me. “Did she tell you how much the Hammond Synges have kindly left her to live on? Not quite eighty pounds a year.”
“That’s a good deal, but it won’t pay the oculist. What was it that at last induced her to submit to him?”
“Her general collapse after that brute of an Iffield’s rupture. She cried her eyes out — she passed through a horror of black darkness. Then came a gleam of light, and the light appears to have broadened. She went into goggles as repentant Magdalens go into the Catholic Church.”
“Yet you don’t think she’ll be saved?”
“She thinks she will — that’s all I can tell you. There’s no doubt that when once she brought herself to accept her real remedy, as she calls it, she began to enjoy a relief that she had never known. That feeling, very new and in spite of what she pays for it most refreshing, has given her something to hold on by, begotten in her foolish little mind a belief that, as she says, she’s on the mend and that in the course of time, if she leads a tremendously healthy life, she’ll be able to take off her muzzle and become as dangerous again as ever. It keeps her going.”
“And what keeps you? You’re good until the parties begin again.”
“Oh, she doesn’t object to me now!” smiled Mrs. Meldrum. “I’m going to take her abroad; we shall be a pretty pair.” I was struck with this energy and after a moment I inquired the reason of it. “It’s to divert her mind,” my friend replied, reddening again, I thought, a little. “We shall go next week: I’ve only waited, to start, to see how your mother would be.” I expressed to her hereupon my sense of her extraordinary merit and also that of the inconceivability of Flora’s fancying herself still in a situation not to jump at the chance of marrying a man like Dawling. “She says he’s too ugly; she says he’s too dreary; she says in fact he’s ‘nobody,’” Mrs. Meldrum pursued. “She says above all that he’s not ‘her own sort.’ She doesn’t deny that he’s good, but she insists on the fact that he’s grotesque. He’s quite the last person she would ever dream of.” I was almost disposed on hearing this to protest that if the girl had so little proper feeling her noble suitor had perhaps served her right; but after a while my curiosity as to just how her noble suitor had served her got the better of that emotion, and I asked a question or two which led my companion again to apply to him the invidious epithet I have already quoted. What had happened was simply that Flora had at the eleventh hour broken down in the attempt to put him off with an uncandid account of her infirmity and that his lordship’s interest in her had not been proof against the discovery of the way she had practised on him. Her dissimulation, he was obliged to perceive, had been infernally deep. The future in short assumed a new complexion for him when looked at through the grim glasses of a bride who, as he had said to some one, couldn’t really, when you came to find out, see her hand before her face. He had conducted himself like any other jockeyed customer — he had returned the animal as unsound. He had backed out in his own way, giving the business, by some sharp shuffle, such a turn as to make the rupture ostensibly Flora’s, but he had none the less remorselessly and basely backed out. He had cared for her lovely face, cared for it in the amused and haunted way it had been her poor little delusive gift to make men care; and her lovely face, damn it, with the monstrous gear she had begun to rig upon it, was just what had let him in. He had in the judgment of his family done everything that could be expected of him; he had made — Mrs. Meldrum had herself seen the letter — a “handsome” offer of pecuniary compensation. Oh, if Flora, with her incredible buoyancy, was in a manner on her feet again now, it was not that she had not for weeks and weeks been prone in the dust. Strange were the humiliations, the prostrations it was given to some natures to survive. That Flora had survived was perhaps after all a sort of sign that she was reserved for some final mercy. “But she has been in the abysses at any rate,” said Mrs. Meldrum, “and I really don’t think I can tell you what pulled her through.”
“I think I can tell you,” I said. “What in the world but Mrs. Meldrum?”
At the end of an hour Flora had not come in, and I was obliged to announce that I should have but time to reach the station, where, in charge of my mother’s servant, I was to find my luggage. Mrs. Meldrum put before me the question of waiting till a later train, so as not to lose our young lady; but I confess I gave this alternative a consideration less profound than I pretended. Somehow I didn’t care if I did lose our young lady. Now that I knew the worst that had befallen her it struck me still less as possible to meet her on the ground of condolence; and with the melancholy aspect she wore to me what other ground was left? I lost her, but I caught my train. In truth she was so changed that one hated to see it; and now that she was in charitable hands one didn’t feel compelled to make great efforts. I had studied her face for a particular beauty; I had lived with that beauty and reproduced it; but I knew what belonged to my trade well enough to be sure it was gone for ever.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10