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   Chapter 1 No.1

Vanitas By Vernon Lee Characters: 7764

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

"But why should you mind who buys your pots, so long as your pots are beautiful?" asked the girl.

"Because as things exist at present, art can minister only to the luxury of the rich, idle classes. The people, the people that works and requires to play, and requires something to tell it of happier things, gets no share in art. The people is too poor to possess beautiful things, and too brutish to care for them: the only amusement it can afford is getting drunk. And one wearies and sickens of merely adding one's grain of sand to the inequality and injustice of existing social conditions-don't you see, Miss Flodden?"

Leonard Greenleaf stopped short, his breathlessness mingling with the annoyance at having let himself be carried away by his ideas, and producing a vague sense of warm helplessness.

"Of course," he went on, taking up a big jar of yellow Hispano-Moorish lustre ware, and mechanically dusting it with the feather brush, "it's absurd to talk like that about such things as pots, and it's absurd to talk like that to you."

And raising his head he gave a furtive little glare at the girl, where she stood in a golden beam of dust and sunlight, which slanted through his workshop.

Miss Valentine Flodden-for such was the name on the family card which she had sent in together with that of Messrs. Boyce-made rather a delightful picture in that yellow halo: the green light from under the plane trees filtering in through the door behind her, and gleams of crimson and glints of gold flickering, in the brown gloom wherever an enamel plate or pot was struck by a sunbeam, winnowed by the blind which flapped in the draught. Greenleaf knew by some dim, forgotten experience or unaccountable guess-work, that she was what was called, in the detestable jargon of a certain set, a pretty woman. He also recognised in her clothes-they were would-be manly, far more simple and practical than those of the girls he knew, yet telling of a life anything but practical and simple-that she belonged to that same set of persons; a fact apparent also in her movements, her words and accent, nay in the something indefinable in her manner which seemed to take things for granted. But he didn't care for her being beautiful. His feeling was solely of vague irritation at having let himself speak-he had quite unnecessarily told her he intended giving up the pottery next year-about the things which were his very life, to a stranger; a stranger who had come with a card to ask advice about her own amateur work, and from out of a world which was foreign and odious to him, the world of idleness and luxury. Also, he experienced slight shame at a certain silly, half-romantic pleasure at what was in reality the unconscious intrusion of a fashionable eccentric. This girl, who had been sent on from Boyce & Co.'s for information which they could not give, must evidently have thought she was coming to another shop, otherwise she would never have come all alone; she evidently took him for a shopman, otherwise she would not have staid so long nor spoken so freely. It was much better she should continue to regard him as a shopman; and indeed was it not his pride to have shaken off all class distinctions, and to have become a workingman like any other?

It was this thought which made him alter his tone and ask with grave politeness, "Is there any further point upon which I can have the pleasure of giving you any information?"

Miss Flodden did not answer this question. She stood contemplating the old warped oaken floor, on whose dust she was drawing a honeysuckle pattern with the end of her parasol.

"Why did you say that you ought not to speak about such things to-people, Mr. Greenleaf?" she asked. "Of course, one's a Philistine, and in outer darkness, but still--;"

She had raised her eyes full upon him. They were a strange light blue, darken

ing as she spoke, under very level brows, and she had an odd way of opening them out at one. Like that, with her delicate complexion, and a little vagueness about the mouth, she looked childish, appealing, and rather pathetic.

"All these things are very interesting," she added quickly; "at least they must be if one understands anything about them."

Greenleaf was sorry. He didn't know exactly why; but he felt vaguely as if he had been brutal. He had made her shut up-for he recognised that the second part of her speech was the reaction against his own; and that was brutal. He ought not to have let the conversation depart from the technicalities of pottery, as he had done by saying he intended giving it up, and then bursting into that socialistic rhapsody. It wasn't fair upon her.

By this time the reaction had completely set in with her. Her face had a totally different expression, indifferent, bored, a little insolent-the expression of her society and order.

"It's been very good of you," she said, looking vaguely round the room, with the shimmer of green leaves and the glint of enamel in its brown dustiness, "to tell me so many things, and to have given up so much of your time. I didn't know, you know, from Messrs. Boyce, that I was breaking in upon you at your work. I suppose they were so kind because of my father having a collection-they thought that I knew more about pottery than I do."

She stretched out her hand stiffly. Leonard Greenleaf did not know whether he ought to take it, because he guessed that she did not know whether she ought to offer it him. Also he felt awkward, and sorry to have shut her up.

"I should-be very happy to tell you anything more that I could, Miss Flodden," he said; "besides, the owners of Yetholme must be privileged people with us potters."

"If-if ever you be passing anywhere near Eaton Square-that's where I live with my aunt," she said, "won't you come in and have a cup of tea? Number 5; the number is on the card. But," she added suddenly, with a little laugh, which was that social stiffening once more, "perhaps you never do pass anywhere near tea-time; or you pass and don't come in. It would be a great waste of your time."

What had made her stiffen suddenly like that was a faint smile which had come into Greenleaf's face at the beginning of her invitation. He had understood, or thought he understood, that his visitor had grasped the fact of his being a sort of gentleman after all, and that she thought it necessary to express her recognition of the difference between him and any other member of the firm of Boyce & Co. by asking him to call.

"Of course you are a great deal too busy," she repeated. "Perhaps some day you will let me come to your studio again-some day next year-good-bye."

"Shall I call you a hansom?" he asked, wondering whether he had been rude.

"Thank you; I think I'll go by the Underground. You cross the big square, and then along the side of the British Museum, don't you? I made a note of the way as I came. Or else I'll get a 'bus in Tottenham Court Road."

She spoke the words 'bus and Underground, he thought, with a little emphasis. She was determined to have her fill of eccentricity, now that she had gone in for pottery, and for running about all alone to strange places, and scoring out everything save her own name on the family card. At least so Greenleaf said to himself, as he watched the tall, slight young figure disappearing down the black Bloomsbury street, and among the green leaves and black stems of the Bloomsbury square. An unlikely apparition, oddly feminine in its spruce tailoring, in that sleepy part of the world, whence fashion had retreated long, long ago, with the last painted coach which had rumbled through the iron gates, and the last link which had been extinguished in the iron extinguishers of the rusty areas.

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