She left me, after she had been introduced, in no suspense about her present motive; she was on the contrary in a visible fever to enlighten me; but I promptly learned that for the alarm with which she pitiably panted our young man was not accountable. She had but one thought in the world, and that thought was for Lord Iffield. I had the strangest, saddest scene with her, and if it did me no other good it at least made me at last completely understand why insidiously, from the first, she had struck me as a creature of tragedy. In showing me the whole of her folly it lifted the curtain of her misery. I don’t know how much she meant to tell me when she came — I think she had had plans of elaborate misrepresentation; at any rate she found it at the end of ten minutes the simplest way to break down and sob, to be wretched and true. When she had once begun to let herself go the movement took her off her feet: the relief of it was like the cessation of a cramp. She shared in a word her long secret; she shifted her sharp pain. She brought, I confess, tears to my own eyes, tears of helpless tenderness for her helpless poverty. Her visit however was not quite so memorable in itself as in some of its consequences, the most immediate of which was that I went that afternoon to see Geoffrey Dawling, who had in those days rooms in Welbeck Street, where I presented myself at an hour late enough to warrant the supposition that he might have come in. He had not come in, but he was expected, and I was invited to enter and wait for him: a lady, I was informed, was already in his sitting-room. I hesitated, a little at a loss: it had wildly coursed through my brain that the lady was perhaps Flora Saunt. But when I asked if she were young and remarkably pretty I received so significant a “No, sir!” that I risked an advance and after a minute in this manner found myself, to my astonishment, face to face with Mrs. Meldrum. “Oh, you dear thing,” she exclaimed, “I’m delighted to see you: you spare me another compromising démarche! But for this I should have called on you also. Know the worst at once: if you see me here it’s at least deliberate — it’s planned, plotted, shameless. I came up on purpose to see him; upon my word, I’m in love with him. Why, if you valued my peace of mind, did you let him, the other day at Folkestone, dawn upon my delighted eyes? I took there in half an hour the most extraordinary fancy to him. With a perfect sense of everything that can be urged against him, I find him none the less the very pearl of men. However, I haven’t come up to declare my passion — I’ve come to bring him news that will interest him much more. Above all I’ve come to urge upon him to be careful.”
“About Flora Saunt?”
“About what he says and does: he must be as still as a mouse! She’s at last really engaged.”
“But it’s a tremendous secret?” I was moved to merriment.
“Precisely: she telegraphed me this noon, and spent another shilling to tell me that not a creature in the world is yet to know it.”
“She had better have spent it to tell you that she had just passed an hour with the creature you see before you.”
“She has just passed an hour with every one in the place!” Mrs. Meldrum cried. “They’ve vital reasons, she wired, for it’s not coming out for a month. Then it will be formally announced, but meanwhile her happiness is delirious. I daresay Mr. Dawling already knows, and he may, as it’s nearly seven o’clock, have jumped off London Bridge; but an effect of the talk I had with him the other day was to make me, on receipt of my telegram, feel it to be my duty to warn him in person against taking action, as it were, on the horrid certitude which I could see he carried away with him. I had added somehow to that certitude. He told me what you had told him you had seen in your shop.”
Mrs. Meldrum, I perceived, had come to Welbeck Street on an errand identical with my own — a circumstance indicating her rare sagacity, inasmuch as her ground for undertaking it was a very different thing from what Flora’s wonderful visit had made of mine. I remarked to her that what I had seen in the shop was sufficiently striking, but that I had seen a great deal more that morning in my studio. “In short,” I said, “I’ve seen everything.”
She was mystified. “Everything?”
“The poor creature is under the darkest of clouds. Oh, she came to triumph, but she remained to talk something approaching to sense! She put herself completely in my hands — she does me the honour to intimate that of all her friends I’m the most disinterested. After she had announced to me that Lord Iffield was bound hands and feet and that for the present I was absolutely the only person in the secret, she arrived at her real business. She had had a suspicion of me ever since the day, at Folkestone, I asked her for the truth about her eyes. The truth is what you and I both guessed. She has no end of a danger hanging over her.”
“But from what cause? I, who by God’s mercy have kept mine, know everything that can be known about eyes,” said Mrs. Meldrum.
“She might have kept hers if she had profited by God’s mercy, if she had done in time, done years ago, what was imperatively ordered her; if she hadn’t in fine been cursed with the loveliness that was to make her behaviour a thing of fable. She may keep them still if she’ll sacrifice — and after all so little — that purely superficial charm. She must do as you’ve done; she must wear, dear lady, what you wear!”
What my companion wore glittered for the moment like a melon-frame in August. “Heaven forgive her — now I understand!” She turned pale.
But I wasn’t afraid of the effect on her good nature of her thus seeing, through her great goggles, why it had always been that Flora held her at such a distance. “I can’t tell you,” I said, “from what special affection, what state of the eye, her danger proceeds: that’s the one thing she succeeded this morning in keeping from me. She knows it herself perfectly; she has had the best advice in Europe. ‘It’s a thing that’s awful, simply awful’ — that was the only account she would give me. Year before last, while she was at Boulogne, she went for three days with Mrs. Floyd–Taylor to Paris. She there surreptitiously consulted the greatest man — even Mrs. Floyd–Taylor doesn’t know. Last autumn, in Germany, she did the same. ‘First put on certain special spectacles with a straight bar in the middle: then we’ll talk’ — that’s practically what they say. What she says is that she’ll put on anything in nature when she’s married, but that she must get married first. She has always meant to do everything as soon as she’s married. Then and then only she’ll be safe. How will any one ever look at her if she makes herself a fright? How could she ever have got engaged if she had made herself a fright from the first? It’s no use to insist that with her beauty she can never be a fright. She said to me this morning, poor girl, the most characteristic, the most harrowing things. ‘My face is all I have — and such a face! I knew from the first I could do anything with it. But I needed it all — I need it still, every exquisite inch of it. It isn’t as if I had a figure or anything else. Oh, if God had only given me a figure too, I don’t say! Yes, with a figure, a really good one, like Fanny Floyd–Taylor’s, who’s hideous, I’d have risked plain glasses. Que voulez-vous? No one is perfect.’ She says she still has money left, but I don’t believe a word of it. She has been speculating on her impunity, on the idea that her danger would hold off: she has literally been running a race with it. Her theory has been, as you from the first so clearly saw, that she’d get in ahead. She swears to me that though the ‘bar’ is too cruel she wears when she’s alone what she has been ordered to wear. But when the deuce is she alone? It’s herself of course that she has swindled worst: she has put herself off, so insanely that even her vanity but half accounts for it, with little inadequate concessions, little false measures and preposterous evasions and childish hopes. Her great terror is now that Iffield, who already has suspicions, who has found out her pince-nez but whom she has beguiled with some unblushing hocus-pocus, may discover the dreadful facts; and the essence of what she wanted this morning was in that interest to square me, to get me to deny indignantly and authoritatively (for isn’t she my ‘favourite sitter’?) that she has anything whatever the matter with any part of her. She sobbed, she ‘went on,’ she entreated; after we got talking her extraordinary nerve left her and she showed me what she has been through — showed me also all her terror of the harm I could do her. ‘Wait till I’m married! wait till I’m married!’ She took hold of me, she almost sank on her knees. It seems to me highly immoral, one’s participation in her fraud; but there’s no doubt that she must be married: I don’t know what I don’t see behind it! Therefore,” I wound up, “Dawling must keep his hands off.”
Mrs. Meldrum had held her breath; she exhaled a long moan. “Well, that’s exactly what I came here to tell him.”
“Then here he is.” Our unconscious host had just opened the door. Immensely startled at finding us he turned a frightened look from one to the other, as if to guess what disaster we were there to announce or avert.
Mrs. Meldrum, on the spot, was all gaiety. “I’ve come to return your sweet visit. Ah,” she laughed, “I mean to keep up the acquaintance!”
“Do — do,” he murmured mechanically and absently, continuing to look at us. Then abruptly he broke out: “He’s going to marry her.”
I was surprised. “You already know?”
He had had in his hand an evening newspaper; he tossed it down on the table. “It’s in that.”
“Published — already?” I was still more surprised.
“Oh, Flora can’t keep a secret!” Mrs. Meldrum humorously declared. She went up to poor Dawling and laid a motherly hand upon him. “It’s all right — it’s just as it ought to be: don’t think about her ever any more.” Then as he met this adjuration with a dismal stare in which the thought of her was as abnormally vivid as the colour of the pupil, the excellent woman put up her funny face and tenderly kissed him on the cheek.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10