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Vanitas. Lee, Vernon, 1856–1935.
page: 214


THE next morning, after surveying the house with his host, and making elaborate plans for its alteration with his hostess, Greenleaf was going for a stroll outside the grounds, when he suddenly heard his name called by the voice of her who had once been Val Flodden, but of whom he already thought only as Mrs. Hermann Struwë. She arose from under a big cedar, among whose sweeping branches she had been seated reading.

“Are you going for a walk?” she asked, coming towards him in her white frock, incredibly white against the green lawn, and trailing her also incredibly white parasol after her.

“Is it true that you go back to town this afternoon?”

“Yes,” answered Greenleaf, laconically.

“Then,” she said, “I will come with you a little way.”

page: 215

They walked silently through a little wood of beeches, and out into the meadows by the river. Greenleaf found it too difficult to say anything, and, after all, why say anything to her?

“Look here,” began Mrs. Hermann Struwë, suddenly stopping short by the water's brink. “I want to speak to you quite plainly, Mr. Greenleaf. Quite plainly, as one does, don't you know, to a person one isn't likely ever to meet again. I didn't want to speak to you yesterday, because—well—because I disliked you too much.”

Greenleaf looked up from the grasses steeping at the root of a big willow, in the water.

“Why?” he asked blankly, but a vague pain invading his consciousness, with the recollection of the library at Yetholme, of the catalogue and the dusty majolica, when Miss Flodden had said once before that she disliked him, because he was taking away the pots.

“But I've thought over it,” she went on, not noticing his interruption; “and I see again, what I recognised years ago—only that every now and then I can't help forgetting it and feeling bad—namely, that it was quite natural on your part—I mean your never having introduced me to the Miss Carpenters, nor page: 216 even written to me again.” She spoke slowly and very gently, with just a little hesitation, as he remembered so well her having done those years ago in Northumberland.

An unknown feeling overwhelmed Greenleaf and prevented his speaking—the feeling, he vaguely understood, of having destroyed, of having killed something.

“I don't reproach you with it. I never really did. I understood very soon that it was quite natural on your part to take me for a Princess Casamassima. I had done nothing to make you really know me, and I had no right to expect you to take me on my own telling. And there must have been so many things to make you suspect my not deserving to know your friends, or to learn about your ideas. It wasn't that,” she added, hurriedly, “that I wished really to explain, because, as I repeat, although I sometimes feel unreasonable and angry, like last night, when something suddenly makes me see the contrast between what I might have been, and what I am, I don't bear you any grudge. What I wanted to tell you, Mr. Greenleaf, is that I wasn't unworthy of the confidence, though it wasn't much, which you once placed in me. I was not a Princess Casamassima; I was not a hum- humbug page: 217 bug then, saying things and getting you to say them for the sake of the novelty. And I'm not really changed since. I wasn't a worthless woman then; and I haven't really become a worthless woman now. Shall we go towards home? I think I heard the gong.”

They were skirting the full river, with its fringe of steeping loose-strife and meadow-sweet, and its clumps of sedge, starred with forget-me-not, whence whirred occasional water-fowl. From the field opposite there came every now and then the lazy low of a cow.

“It was very different, wasn't it, on the Tweed,” she said, looking round her; “the banks so steep and bare, and all that shingle. Do you remember the heron? Didn't he look Japanese? I hate all this,” and she dug up a pellet of green with her parasol point, and flung it far into the water.

“Of course,” she went on, “to you it must seem the very proof of your suspicions having been justified, I mean your finding me again—well, in this house. And, perhaps, you may remember my telling you, all those years ago at Yetholme, that I would never marry.”

She raised her eyes from the ground and looked straight into his, with that odd deepening of colour of page: 218 her own. She had guessed his thoughts: that sentence about not marrying and being given in marriage was ringing in his mind; and he felt, as she looked into his face, that she wished above all to clear herself from that unspoken accusation.

“I never should have, most likely,” she went on. “Although you must remember that all my bringing up had consisted in teaching me that a woman's one business in life is to marry, to make a good marriage, to marry into this set, a man like my husband. For a long while before I ever met you, I had made up my mind that although this was undoubtedly the natural and virtuous course, I would not follow it, that I would rather earn my living or starve; and I had been taught that to do either, to go one's own ways and think one's own thoughts, was scandalous. It was about this that I had broken with my sister. She had bothered me to marry one of a variety of men whom she unearthed for the purpose; and we quarrelled because I refused the one she wanted me to have most—the one, as a matter of fact, who is now my husband. I tell you all these uninteresting things because I want you to know that I was in earnest when I told you I did not want the things a woman gets by marrying. I was in earnest,” she page: 219 went on, stopping and twisting a long willow leaf round her finger, the tone of her voice changing suddenly from almost defiant earnestness to a sad, helpless little tone, “but it was of no good. I saw—you showed me that I was locked, walled into the place into which I had been born; you made me feel that it was useless for an outsider to try to gain the confidence of you people who work and care about things; that your friends would consider me an intruder, that you considered me a humbug—you slammed in my face the little door through which I had hoped to have escaped from all this sort of thing.”

And she nodded towards the white house, stretched like a little encampment upon the green river bank, with the flotilla of boats and punts and steam launches, moored before its windows.

“Then,” said Greenleaf, a light coming into his mind, a light such as would reveal some great ruin of flood or fire to the unconscious criminal who has opened the sluice or dropped the match in the dark, “then you sat out that song last night to make me understand....?”

“It was very childish of me, and also very unjust,” answered Mrs. Hermann composedly. “Of course you couldn't help it. I don't feel angry with you. page: 220 But sometimes, when I remember those weeks when I gradually understood that it was all to be, and I made up my mind to live out the life for which I had been born—and, now that the pots were sold—well, to sell myself also to the highest bidder—sometimes I did feel a little bad. You see when one is really honest oneself, it is hard to be misunderstood—and the more misunderstood the more one explains oneself—by other people who are honest.”

They walked along in silence; which Greenleaf broke by asking as in a dream—“And your violin?”

“Oh! I've given that up long ago—my husband didn't like it, and as he has given me everything that I possess, it wouldn't be business, would it, to do things he dislikes? If it had been the piano, or the guitar, or the banjo! But a woman can't lock herself up and practice the fiddle! People would think it odd. And now,” she added, as they came in sight of the little groups of variegated pink and mauve frocks, and the white boating-clothes under the big cedars, “good-bye, Mr. Greenleaf; and—be a little more trustful to other people who may want your friendship—won't you? I shall like to think of that.” She stretched out her hand, with the thin glove loosely wrinkled over the arm, and she smiled that good, wide-eyed page: 221 smile, like that of a good, serious child who wishes to understand.

Greenleaf did not take her hand at once.

“You have children at least?” he asked hoarsely.

She understood his thought, but hesitated before answering.

“I have three—somewhere—at the sea-side, or some other place where children ought to be when their parents go staying about,”—she answered quickly—“they are quite happy, with plenty of toys, now; and they will be quite happy when they grow up, for they will have plenty of money, and they will be their father's image—good-bye!”

“Good-bye,” answered Greenleaf, and added, after he had let go her hand, “It is very generous of you to be so forgiving. But your generosity makes it only more impossible for me ever to forgive myself.”

Out of the station of that little group of river houses the line goes almost immediately on to a long bridge. It was in process of repair, and as the train moved slowly across, Greenleaf could see, on the upper river reach, close beneath him, a flotilla of boats, canoes, and skiffs of various sizes, surrounding a punt, and all of them gay with lilac and pale green and pale pink frocks, and white flannels, and coloured sashes and page: 222 cushions, and fantastic umbrellas. Some of the ladies were scrambling from one of the skiffs into the punt, which was pinned into its place by the long pole held upright in the green, glassy water, reflecting the pink, green, lilac, and white, the red cushions, and the shimmering greyness of the big willows. There was much laughter and some little shrieks, and the twang of a banjo; and it looked altogether like some modern Watteau's version of a latter-day embarkation for the island of Venus. And, in the little heap of bright colours, Greenleaf recognised, over the side of a skiff, the parasol, white, incredibly white, of the former Val Flodden.