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I seemed to catch the tail of his idea. begged him not to think my laughter in "Mrs. Meldrum's?" bad taste; it was only a practical recognition of the fact that we had built a monstrous castle in the air. Did n't he see on what flimsy ground the structure rested? The evidence was preposterously small. He believed the worst, but we were utterly ignorant.
"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 should n't mind."
The tone of these words somehow made his ugly face beautiful, and I felt that there dated from that 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 made me 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 he conscientiously replied, "Even with those things of Mrs. Meldrum's." I
"I shall find out the truth," he promptly replied.
"How can you? If you question her, you will simply drive her to perjure herself; and 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 must n't speak as if Lord Iffield and you were her only alternatives."
Dawling thought a moment. "Would n'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?
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, and he said, gloomily enough, "All right, I promise." He was a lover who could tacitly grant the proposition that there was no
limit to the deceit his loved one was ready to practice; 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, figured in the liberal list. 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, one morning, a week after the visit I have just summarized, Flora's name was 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.
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 quivered 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 showed me her misery. I don't know how much she meant to tell me when she came, - NO. 460.
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 sittingroom. 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, and upon my word, because 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! was moved to merriment.
est 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 honor 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 I 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 row hanging over her."
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 its not coming out for a month. Then it will be formally announced, but meanwhile her happiness is delirious. I dare say 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 that 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 dark
"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 had n't, in fine, been cursed with the loveliness that was to make her behavior 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 exclaimed, turning pale.
But I was n'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 morn ing, in keeping from me. She knows, herself, perfectly, she has had the best advice in Europe. It's a thing that's awful, simply awful,' was the only account she would give me. Year before last, while she was at Boulogne, she
went for three days, with Mrs. FloydTaylor, to Paris. She there surreptitiously consulted the greatest man, Mrs. Floyd-Taylor does n't know. Last autumn, in Germany, she did the same. 'First put on peculiar 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 is n'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. But 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, should 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 is n't she my favorite 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, as well as 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 quite hung on my lips; she exhaled a long moan, as if she had been holding her breath. "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 gay"I've come to return your sweet Ah," she laughed, "I mean to keep up the acquaintance!"
I have spoken of these reminiscences as of a row of colored 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 Dawling accepted like a gentleman the event his evening paper had ushered in; 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 a 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 my nothing but 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, 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 symptoms 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 provoked had by no means the figure of my martial 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 recognized 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,