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Vanitas. Lee, Vernon, 1856–1935.
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page: 166

V.

“IT'S very unfair of me, of course,” Miss Flodden remarked next morning, as she handed down plate after plate, jar after jar, to Greenleaf, seated, the catalogue before him and the pen in his hand, at a long deal table—“it's very unfair, and it isn't at all business, but I used to think I should like to see you again; and now, on account of these pots, I dislike you.”

Greenleaf looked up in astonishment. It was as if the veil of sullenness, preventing his recognition of Miss Flodden ever since his arrival, had suddenly been torn asunder by a burst of passion. The girl was standing by the glass case, dusting a Limoges platter with a feather brush, her mannish coat and short skirt covered with dust. She spoke in an undertone, and her eyes were looking down upon the platter; but it struck him at once that she was a Celt once more, and that the Celtic waywardness and emotion were bursting out the more irresistibly for that long repression due to the Spartan undemonstra- undemonstrativeness page: 167 tiveness of smart society. He noticed also a trait he had forgotten, and which had seemed to be, long ago at the Museum, a sort of mark of temperament, telling of inherited ferocity in this well-bred young lady; two of her little white teeth, instead of being square pearls, like their companions, were pointed and sharp, like those of a wild animal. And as she raised her eyes, their light, whitish blue, flashed angrily.

“Excuse my being so rude, Mr. Greenleaf,” she added very coldly, “you have been so good, showing and explaining a lot of things to me, that it's only fair you should know that, on account of the pots, I have—well, got to dislike you. You see,” she went on, turning her back to him, “they were my toys. They were the only people, except the trees and the river, one had to talk to sometimes.”

Greenleaf had noticed at dinner last night, and again this morning at lunch, that Miss Flodden seemed to have very little in common with her family, and, indeed, scarcely any communication at all.

Sir Percy Flodden, an old gentleman with a beautiful white beard, and beautiful soft manners, but a deficiency in further characteristics, had found leisure, in the intervals of organising Primrose meetings, making speeches at Conservative dinners, writing page: 168 letters to the Times about breeds of cattle, and hunting and fishing a great deal, to get married a second time, and to produce a large number of younger fishermen and huntresses, future Primrose Leaguers and writers to the Times. The second wife being dead, and sundry aunts installed in her place, the younger generation of Floddens, after gradually emerging from the nursery, ran wild in brooks and streams, stables and haylofts, until the boys were packed off to civilisation and Eton, pending further civilisation and Sandhurst; and the girls were initiated into their proper form of civilisation by being taken to a drawing-room and then hustled into further female evolution by an energetic and tactful married sister. The elder girls were now at home, preparing clothes for various balls and packing trunks for various visits; and the elder boys had come back on holidays, with fishing-rods, coin collections, the first three books of Euclid, and the last new thing in slang; as to the younger half-brothers and sisters, they were still in the phase of the hayloft and stable, emerging only to partake of gigantic breakfasts and teas.

Among all these good-natured and well-mannered, but somewhat dull creatures, Val Flodden moved in page: 169 an atmosphere of her own, somewhat of a stranger, considerably of a puzzle, and regarded with the mixed awe and suspicion due to her having been recently an admittedly pretty woman, and now showing signs of becoming an undoubtedly eccentric one. Besides, there was the fact that Val Flodden was partially a Celt, and that her father and brothers were most emphatically Saxons.

All this it has been necessary to explain that the reader might understand that Greenleaf might have understood Miss Flodden's passionate clinging to her sole companions at Yetholme, the old crockery of her grandfather's collection.

But although Greenleaf did actually take in a portion of the situation, he was mainly impressed by the want of public spirit exhibited by the young lady; so inevitably do we expect other folk to possess even our most eccentric standards, and to rule their feelings and actions by notions of which they have probably never even heard.

Miss Flodden had broken through all rules in manifesting her feelings about the pots; Greenleaf never dreamed of taking advantage of her false move, but with his usual simplicity, encouraged by a plain-spokenness, which never struck him as otherwise page: 170 than natural, he answered very gravely: “Of course I understand how fond you must be of these beautiful things, and how much it must have been to you—it would be to anyone who cared for art, even if not specially interested like you in pottery—to have them constantly before you. But you ought to remember that you are parting with them for the advantage of others.”

Miss Flodden flushed a little. It was probably from surprise and shame at this man's stupidity. She must have felt as if she herself had alluded to the necessity of selling these heirlooms, as if she herself had done the incredible thing of pointing out the pecuniary advantage. Then, apparently, she reflected that if this man was so obtuse, he could not help himself; but that he was doubtless honest in his intentions. For she added coldly, and hiding her contemptuous face from him with a jar held at arms' length:

“Of course I know that it's for the benefit of my brothers and sisters. I don't grudge them the money, heaven knows, and when one's broke, one's broke. Only it's sad to think what sort of things—what stupid amusements and useless necessaries these lovely things will be exchanged for, merely because the world is so idiotically constituted. You see, the pos- possession page: 171 session of these pots ought to give everyone more pleasure than the possession of an additional horse, or an extra frock.”

Greenleaf was as much taken aback at her misconception of his meaning as she had been at her supposed understanding of it.

“Good gracious, Miss Flodden, I didn't mean the advantage of your brothers and sisters. But surely you ought to reflect that these pots passing from a private house in Northumberland to the South Kensington Mlusuem, will mean that hundreds of people will be afforded pleasure, instead of only one or two—one, namely yourself, by your own account. Besides, do you really think that any private individual has a moral right to keep for himself any object capable of giving a noble kind of pleasure to his fellows, merely because the present state of society allows him to possess more money than his neighbours, and to lock up things as his property? Surely art belongs to all who can enjoy it!”

There was something fault-finding in Greenleaf's tone, owing to the fact that he could not realise such ideas, so very familiar to himself, not being equally familiar to everyone else.

Miss Flodden set down the jar she was dusting, page: 172 keeping her wrist balanced on its edge, and looked at Greenleaf with surprise in her blue eyes, which concentrated, and seemed to grow darker and deeper by the concentration.

“Really,” she asked incredulously, “are you speaking seriously? But then—what would become of luxury and so forth?”

“The active would enjoy it as well as the idle—or rather, there would be no longer either active or idle; everyone would work and enjoy equally, and equally fairly and rationally.”

“Then,” went on Miss Flodden slowly, the sequence of thoughts bursting with difficulty on to her mind, “no one would have things, except for real enjoyment and as a result of fairly earning them? People would all have books and beautiful trees and fields to look at, and pictures and music; but no diamonds, or stepping horses, or frocks from Worth—the things one has because other folk have them.”

Greenleaf smiled: she seemed to him, talking of these things which “one” had because “others” had them, things so futile, so foreign to his mind, extraordinarily like a child talking of the snakes, whales, and ogres, represented by tables and chairs, and hearthrugs.

page: 173

“Of course not.”

“At that rate,” went on the girl, “there would no longer be any need for marrying and giving in marriage. One would live quite free; free to work at what one liked, and look about without folks worrying one.”

Greenleaf did not follow her thought, for his own thoughts were too foreign to the habits she was alluding to.

“I don't see,” he added simply, “why people shouldn't marry or be given in marriage because every one worked and had leisure. Some mightn't, perhaps, because some would always, perhaps, want to work too much, and because things matter to me—I mean to some—more than other people. But I can't see why others shouldn't marry and be given in marriage, Miss Flodden.”

A little contraction passed across the girl's face, and she answered in a hurried, husky voice:

“No, no; that would be all over.”

And they fell again to the catalogue. It was a very hard day's work, that first one, for the catalogue was in horrid confusion; and they really could not have had time to talk much about other things, for they went on with merely a brief space for lunch, and page: 174 Greenleaf was sent for a walk with one of the boys at tea time, while Miss Flodden unwillingly entertained some neighbours. Then at dinner the conversation, in which she took no part, rolled mainly upon local pedigrees, crops, how many fish the boys had caught, in what houses friends were staying, whom sundry young ladies of the neighbourhood were likely to marry, and how many bags had been made at the various shoots. Still, despite these irrelevant interests, Miss Flodden seemed to have understood why Greenleaf had expected her to like the sale of the collection, and Greenleaf to have understood why Miss Flodden should have been vexed at the collection being sold. At least there was a sense of mutual comprehension and good-will, such as the morning had scarcely promised. And when, after fretting a little over more bags of game and more local pedigrees, with his host and the boys after dinner, Greenleaf returned to find the ladies in various stages of somnolence, over the drawing-room fire; he experienced an odd sense of the naturalness of things when Miss Flodden asked whether he could play the piano, and took her violin out of its case.

Miss Flodden did not play exactly well, for it appears that very few people do; and she, of course, page: 175 had had but little opportunity of learning. Yet, in a way, she played the fiddle much better, Greenleaf felt, than he himself, who was decidedly a proficient, could play the piano. For there was in her playing the expression not merely of talent, but of extraordinary, passionate, dogged determination to master the instrument. It was as much this as the actual execution which gave the charm to her performance, To Greenleaf the charm was immense. He nearly always played, when he did play, with men; and he hated the way in which the fiddle crushes the starched hideous shirt, the movement of bowing rucks the black sleeve and hard white cuff too high above the red, masculine wrist; and among the dreams of his life there had always been a very silly one, of a younger sister—he always thought of her as called Emily—who would have learned the violin, and who would have stood before him like this, bow in hand, while he looked up from his piano. It seems odd, perhaps, that the fair violinist should never have appeared to his mind as a possible wife; but so it was. And so it was that this image, which had dawned upon his school-boy fancy long before the delectableness of marriage could ever be understood, and when his solitary little soul still smarted at his dull, grown- page: 176 up, companionless home—so it was that the image of “Emily”—the imaginary sister with the violin had gradually taken the place in his heart of that grave Miss Delia Carpenter, the only woman whom he had ever loved, and who had told him she was in love with another.

The family was beginning to disperse; the girls to wake up yawning from their novels or their embroidery; the father to start suddenly from his slumber over the Times; the boys, having satisfied themselves in the newspapers about the number of brace of grouse, had sneaked off to prepare flies for the next day's fishing; and still the duet went on, the image of “Emily” gradually acquiring the blue eyes (its own had been brownish) and clear-cut, nervous features (she had hitherto had an irregular style of beauty) of Val Flodden.

“That's enough,” said Miss Flodden, putting her violin tenderly—she had the same rather unwonted tenderness with some of the majolica—into its case, and looking round at the sleepy faces of the family. “Jack, give Mr. Greenleaf his candle. And,” she added, as they shook hands, “you'll tell me some more about how it will be when everybody works and has leisure, won't you, to-morrow?”

page: 177

That night Greenleaf saw in his dreams his father's rectory among the south country pines, the garden and paddock, the big library and loft full of books; and among it all there wandered about, rather dim in features, but unhesitatingly recognised, that imaginary sister, the violinist Emily.

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