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A Magazine of Literature, Science, Art, and Politics.
VOL. LXXVII. — FEBRUARY, 1896.- No. CCCCLX.
I had been working hard all summer in town, and I had gone down to Folke stone for a blow. Art was long, I felt, and my holiday short; my mother was settled at Folkestone, and I paid her a visit when I could. I remember how, on this occasion, after weeks of my stuffy studio, with my nose on my palette, I sniffed in the clean salt air and cooled my eyes with the purple sea. The place was full of lodgings, and the lodgings were, at that season, full of people, people who had nothing to do but to stare at one another on the great flat down. There were thousands of little chairs, and almost as many little Jews; and there was music in an open rotunda, over which the little Jews wagged their big noses. We all strolled to and fro and took pennyworths of rest; the long, level cliff-top, edged in places with its iron rail, might have been the deck of a huge crowded ship. There were old folks in Bath chairs, and there was one dear chair, creeping to its last full stop, by the side of which I always walked.
There was, in fine weather, the coast of France to look at, and there were the usual things to say about it; there was also, in every state of the atmosphere, our friend Mrs. Meldrum, a subject of remark not less inveterate. The widow of an officer in the Engineers, she had settled, like many members of the military miscellany, well within sight of the hereditary enemy, who, however, had left her leisure to form, in spite of the difference of their years, a close alliance with my mother. She was the friendliest, the keenest, the ugliest of women, the least apologetic, the least morbid in her misfortune. She carried it high aloft, with loud sounds and free gestures, made it flutter in the breeze as if it had been the flag of her country. It consisted mainly of a big red face, indescribably out of drawing, from which she glared at you through gold-rimmed aids to vision, of such circumference, and so frequently displaced, that some one had vividly spoken of her as flattening her nose against the glass of her spectacles. She was extraordinarily near-sighted, and, whatever they did to other objects, they magnified immensely the kind eyes behind them. Blessed conveniences they were, in their hideous, honest potency, -they showed the good lady everything in the world but her own plainness. This element was enhanced by wild braveries of dress, reckless charges of color and stubborn resistances of cut, wondrous encounters in which the art of the toilet seemed to lay down its life. She had
proached took leave of their manners; every one seemed to linger and gape. When she brought her face close to Mrs. Meldrum's, and she appeared to be always bringing it close to some one's,
it was a marvel that objects so dissimilar should express the same general identity, the unmistakable character of the English gentlewoman. Mrs. Meldrum sustained the comparison with her usual courage, but I wondered why she did n't introduce me: I should have had no objection to the bringing of such a face close to mine. However, when the young lady moved on with her escort, she herself bequeathed me a sense that some such approximation might still ocWas this by reason of the general frequency of encounters at Folkestone, or by reason of a subtle acknowledgment that she contrived to make of the rights, on the part of others, that such beauty as hers created? I was in a position to answer that question after Mrs. Meldrum had answered a few of mine.
the tread of a grenadier, and the voice be so occupied. The people who apof an angel.
In the course of a walk with her the day after my arrival, I found myself grabbing her arm with sudden and undue familiarity. I had been struck by the beauty of a face that approached us, and I was still more affected when I saw the face, at the sight of my companion, open like a window thrown wide. A smile fluttered out of it as brightly as a drapery dropped from a sill, quite as if the stuff had been shaken there in the sun, - shaken by the young lady, flanked by two young men, the wonderful young lady who, as we drew nearer, rushed up to Mrs. Meldrum and familiarly embraced her. My immediate impression of her had been that she was dressed in mourning, but during the few moments she stood talking with our friend I made more discoveries. The figure, from the neck down, was meagre, the stature insignificant, but the desire to please was at every point immense, as well as the air of infallibly knowing how, and of never, never missing it. This was a little person whom I would have made a high bid for a good chance to paint. The head, the features, the color, the whole facial oval and radiance, had a wonderful purity; the deep gray eyes - the the most agreeable, I thought, that I had ever seen-brushed with a kind of winglike grace every object they encountered. Their possessor was just back from Boulogne, where she had spent a week with dear Mrs. Floyd-Taylor: this accounted for the effusiveness of her reunion with dear Mrs. Meldrum. Her black garments were of the freshest and daintiest; she suggested a pink-and-white wreath at a showy funeral. She confounded us for three minutes with her presence; she was a beauty of the great conscious, public, responsible order. The young men, her companions, gazed at her and grinned: I could see there were very few moments of the day at which young men, these or others, would not
Flora Saunt, the only daughter of an old soldier, had lost both her parents, her mother within a few months. Mrs. Meldrum had known them, disapproved of them, considerably avoided them; she had watched the girl, off and on, from her early childhood. Flora, just twenty, was extraordinarily alone in the world, so alone that she had no natural chaperon, no one to stay with but a mercenary stranger, Mrs. HammondSynge, the sister-in-law of one of the young men I had just seen. She had lots of friends, but none of them nice: she had picked up the most impossible people. The Floyd-Taylors, with whom she had been at Boulogne, were simply horrid. The Hammond-Synges were perhaps not so vulgar, but they had no conscience in their dealings with her.
"She knows what I think of them," said Mrs. Meldrum, "and indeed she knows what I think of most things!"
"She shares that privilege with most of your friends!" I replied, laughing. "No doubt; but possibly to some of my friends it makes a little difference. That girl does n't care a button. knows best of all what I think of Flora Saunt."
"And what may your opinion be?" "Why, that she's not worth talking about, an idiot too abysmal."
"Does n't she care for that?"
"Just enough, as you saw, to hug me till I cry out. She's too pleased with herself for anything else to matter."
"Surely, my dear friend," I rejoined, "she has a good deal to be pleased with!"
"So every one tells her, and so you would have told her if I had given you a chance. However, that does n't signify, either, for her vanity is beyond all making or mending. She believes in herself, and she's welcome, after all, poor dear, having only herself to look to. I've seldom met a young woman more completely at liberty to be silly. She has a clear course, - she 'll make a showy finish."
"Well,” I replied, "as she probably will reduce many persons to the same degraded state, her partaking of it won't show so much."
"If you mean that the world's full of drivelers, I quite agree with you!" cried Mrs. Meldrum, trumpeting her laugh half across the Channel.
I had, after this, to consider a little what she would call me, but I did n't let it prevent me from insisting on her making me acquainted with Flora Saunt; indeed, I took the bull by the horns, urging that she had drawn the portrait of a nature which common charity now demanded that she should put into relation with a character really fine. Such a frail creature was just an object of pity. This contention on my part had
at first, of course, been jocular; but, strange to say, it was quite the ground I found myself taking with regard to our young lady after I had begun to know her. I could n't have said what I felt about her except that she was undefended; from the first of my sitting with her there after dinner, under the stars, that was a week, at Folkestone, of balmy nights and muffled tides and crowded chairs, I became aware both that protection was wholly absent from her life, and that she was wholly indifferent to its absence. The odd thing was that she was not appealing; she was abjectly, divinely conceited, absurdly, fantastically happy. Her beauty was, as yet, all the world to her, a world she had plenty to do to live in. Mrs. Meldrum told me more about her, and there was nothing that, as the centre of a group of giggling, nudging spectators, she was n't ready to tell about herself. She held her little court in the crowd, upon the grass, playing her light over Jews and Gentiles, completely at ease in all promiscuities. It was an effect of these things that from the very first, with every one listening, I could mention that my main business with her would be just to have a go at her head, and to arrange, in that view, for an early sitting. It would have been as impossible, I think, to be impertinent to her as it would have been to throw a stone at a plate-glass window; so any talk that went forward on the basis of her loveliness was the most natural thing in the world, and immediately became the most general and sociable. It was when I saw all this that I judged how, though it was the last thing she asked for, what one would ever most have at her service was a curious compassion. That sentiment was colored by the vision of the dire exposure of a being whom vanity had put so off her guard. Hers was the only vanity I have ever known that made its possessor superlatively soft. Mrs. Meldrum's further information contributed, moreover,
to these indulgences, her account of the girl's neglected childhood, her queer Continental relegations, with straying, squabbling, Monte-Carlo-haunting parents; and the more invidious picture, above all, of her pecuniary arrangement, still in force, with the Hammond-Synges, who really, though they never took her out, practically she went out alone, had their hands half the time in her pocket. She had to pay for everything, down to her share of the wine-bills and the horses' fodder, down to Bertie Hammond Synge's fare in the "underground" when he went to the city for her. She had been left with just money enough to turn her head; and it had n't even been put in trust, nothing prudent or right had been done with it. could spend her capital, and at the rate she was going, expensive, extravagant, and with a swarm of parasites to help, it certainly would n't last very long.
"Could n't you perhaps take her, independent, unincumbered as you I asked of Mrs. Meldrum. "You're probably, with one exception, the sanest person she knows, and you at least would n't scandalously fleece her."
"How do you know what I would n't do?" my humorous friend demanded. "Of course I've thought how I can help her, it has kept me awake at night. But I can't help her at all; she 'll take nothing from me. You know what she does, - she hugs me and runs away. She has an instinct about me, she feels that I've one about her. And then she dislikes me for another reason that I'm not quite clear about, but that I'm well aware of and that I shall find out some day. So far as her settling with me goes, it would be impossible, moreover, here she wants, naturally enough, a much wider field. She must live in London, her game is there. So she takes the line of adoring me, of saying she can never forget that I was devoted to her mother, — which I would n't have been for the world, and of giving
me a wide berth. I think she positively dislikes to look at me. It's all right; there's no obligation; though people in general can't take their eyes off me."
"I see that at this moment," I replied. "But what does it matter where or how, for the present, she lives? She'll marry infallibly, marry early, and everything will change.”
"Whom will she marry ? my companion gloomily asked.
She's so pretty
"Any one she likes.
"She'll fascinate him first, and bore him afterwards. Moreover, she's not so pretty as you make her out: she has a poor little figure."
"No doubt; but one does n't in the least notice it."
"Not now," said Mrs. Meldrum, "but one will when she 's older."
"When she's older she 'll be a princess, so it won't matter."
"She has other drawbacks," my companion went on. "Those wonderful eyes are good for nothing but to roll about. She can't use them."
"Use them? Why, she does nothing else."
"To make fools of young men, but not to read or write, not to do any sort of work. She never opens a book, and her maid writes her notes. You'll say that those who live in glass houses should n't throw stones. Of course I know that if I did n't wear my goggles I should n't be good for much."
"Do you mean that Miss Saunt ought to sport such things?" I exclaimed, with more horror than I meant to show.
"I don't prescribe for her; I don't know that they're what she requires." "What's the matter with her eyes?" I asked after a moment.
"I don't exactly know; but I heard from her mother, years ago, that even as a child they had had for a while to put her into spectacles, and that, though she hated them and had been in a fury of
rage, she would always have to be very careful. I'm sure I hope she is!"
I echoed the hope, but I remember well the impression this made upon me, -my immediate pang of resentment, almost of disgust. I felt as if a great rare sapphire had split in my hand.
This conversation occurred the night before I went back to town. I settled,
on the morrow, to take a late train, so that I had still my morning to spend at Folkestone, where, during the greater part of it, I was out with my mother. Every one in the place was, as usual, out with some one else, and even had I been free to go and take leave of her I should have been sure that Flora Saunt would not be at home. Just where she was I presently discovered: she was at the far end of the cliff, the point at which it overhangs the pretty view of Sandgate and Hythe. Her back, however, was turned to this attraction; it rested, with the aid of her elbows, thrust slightly behind her, so that her scanty little shoulders were raised toward her ears, on the high rail that inclosed the down. Two gentlemen stood before her, whose faces we could n't see, but who, even as observed from the rear, were visibly absorbed in the charming figure-piece submitted to them. I was freshly struck with the fact that this meagre and defective little person, with the cock of her hat and the flutter of her crape, with her eternal idleness, her eternal happiness, her absence of moods and mysteries, and the pretty presentation of her feet, which, especially now, in the supported slope of her posture, occupied with their imperceptibility so much of the foreground, I was reminded anew, I say, how our young lady dazzled by some art that the enumeration of her merits did n't explain and that the mention of her lapses did n't affect. Where she
was amiss nothing counted, and where she was right everything did. I say she was wanting in mystery, but that, after all, was her secret. This happened to be my first chance of introducing her to my mother, who had not much left in life but the quiet look, from under the hood of her chair, at the things which, after she should have quitted those she loved, she could still trust to make the world good for them. I wondered an instant how much she might be moved to trust Flora Saunt, and then, while the chair drew up and she waited, I went over and asked the girl to come and speak to her. In this way I saw that if one of Flora's attendants was the inevitable young Hammond - Synge, the master of ceremonies of her little court, always offering the use of a telescope and accepting that of a cigar, the other was a personage I had not yet encountered, a small pale youth in showy knickerbockers, the ends of whose little mustache were glued up into such points. that they fairly drew up the corners of his eyes. I remember taking him at first for a foreigner and for something of a pretender: I scarcely know why, unless because of the motive I felt in the stare he fixed on me when I asked Miss Saunt to come away. He struck me a little as a young man practicing impertinence, but it did n't matter, for Flora came away with alacrity, bringing all her prettiness and pleasure, and gliding over the grass in that rustle of delicate mourning which made the endless variety of her garments, as a painter could take heed, strike one always as the same obscure elegance. She seated herself on the floor of my mother's chair, a little too much on her right instep, as I afterwards gathered, caressing her stiff hand, smiling up into her cold face, commending and approving her without a reserve and without a doubt. She told her immediately, as if it were something to hold on by, that she was soon to sit to me for her "likeness," and her words