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   Chapter 2 No.2

Vanitas By Vernon Lee Characters: 14613

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Greenleaf had a great disbelief in his own intuitions; perhaps because he vibrated unusually to the touch of other folks' nature, and that the number and variety of his impressions sometimes made it difficult to come to a cut-and-dry conclusion. There was in him also a sensitiveness on the subject of his own beliefs and ideals which made him instinctively avoid contact with other folk, and avoid even knowing much about them. He often felt that in a way he was very unfit to be a Socialist and an agitator; for besides the absurd attraction that everything beautiful, distinguished, exotic, exercised upon him, and a corresponding repugnance to the coarse and sordid sights of the world, he knew himself to look at people in an excessively subjective way, never seeking spontaneously to understand what they themselves were trying to do and say, but analysing them merely from the series of impressions which he received. Just as his consciousness of being a born ?sthete and aristocrat had pushed him into social questions and democratic views; so also his extreme conscientiousness occasionally made him attempt, rather abortively, to behave to others as he might wish to be behaved to himself, his imagination being taxed to the utmost by the inquiry as to what behaviour would be altruistic and just under the circumstances.

This preamble is necessary to explain various inconsistencies in our hero's conduct, and more particularly at this moment, the inconsistency of suddenly veering round in his suppositions about Miss Valentine Flodden. In his monotonous life of artistic work and social study-in those series of quiet days, as like one another as the rows of black Bloomsbury houses with their garlanded door-lintels and worn-out doorsteps, as the spear-heads of the railings, the spikes of blossom on the horse-chestnuts, and the little lions on the chain curbs round the British Museum-the weekly firing of his pottery kiln at Boyce's Works near Wandsworth, the weekly lecture to workingmen down at Whitechapel, the weekly reception in the sooty rooms of Faber, the Socialist poet and critic who had married the Socialist painter-all these were the landmarks of Greenleaf's existence, and landmarks of the magnitude of martello towers along a sea-shore. So that anything at all unexpected became, in his life of subversive thoughts and methodical activity, an incident and an adventure.

Thus it was that the visit of Miss Flodden, although he repeatedly noted its utter unimportance to himself and everyone else, became the theme of much idle meditation in the intervals of his work and study. He felt it as extraordinarily strange. And feeling it in this way, his conscientious good sense caused him to analyse it as sometimes almost unusually commonplace.

It was in consequence of repeatedly informing himself that after all nothing could be more natural than this visit, that he took the step which brought him once more into contact with the eccentricity of the adventure. For he repeated so often to himself how natural it was that a girl with a taste for art should care for pottery (particularly as her father owned the world-famous Yetholme collection), and caring for pottery should go for information to Messrs. Boyce's the decorators, and being referred by Boyce's to himself should come on, at once, and quite alone, to the studio of his unknown self; he identified Miss Flodden so completely with any one of the mature maidens who carried their peacock blue and sage green and amber beads, and interest in economics, arch?ology and so forth freely through his world, that he decided to give Miss Flodden the assistance which he would have proffered to one of the independent and studious spinsters of Bloomsbury and West Kensington. Accordingly he took a sheet of paper with "Boyce & Co., Decorators," stamped at the head of it, and wrote a note directed to Miss Valentine Flodden, Eaton Square, saying that as she would doubtless be interested in examining the Rhodian and Damascene pottery of the British Museum, which she had told him she knew very imperfectly, he ventured to enclose an introduction to the Head of the Department, whom she would find a most learned and amiable old gentleman; the fact of her connection with the famous Yetholme collection would, for the rest, be introduction enough in itself.

After posting the note and the enclosure, Leonard Greenleaf reflected, with some wonder and a little humiliation, that he had chosen a sheet of Boyce's business paper to write to Miss Flodden; while he had selected a sheet with the name of his old Oxford college for writing to the Head of the Department. But it was not childish contradictoriness after all; at least so he told himself. For old Colonel Hancock Dunstan (one never dropped the Colonel even in one's thoughts) had a weakness in favour of polite society and against new-fangled democracy, and liked Greenleaf exactly because he had better shaped hands and a better cut coat than other men who haunted the Museum. And as to Miss Flodden, why, it seemed more appropriate to keep things on the level of pottery and decoration, and therefore to have Boyce & Co. well to the fore.

Greenleaf had made up his mind that Fate would never again bring him face to face with Miss Flodden, and that he would certainly take no steps towards altering Fate's intentions. It was for this very reason that he had introduced the lady to his old friend of the Museum: for it is singular how introducing someone to somebody else keeps up the sense of the someone's presence; and how, occasionally, one insists upon such vicarious company. But, as stated already, he never dreamed, at least he thought he never dreamed, to see his eccentric young visitor again.

Such being the case, it might seem odd, had not his experience of human feelings destroyed all perception of oddity, that Greenleaf experienced no surprise when, obeying a peremptory scrawl from the former terror of Pashas and the present terror of scholars, he found himself one afternoon in Colonel Dunstan's solemn bachelor drawing-room, and in the presence once more of Miss Valentine Flodden.

Colonel Hancock Dunstan, who in his distant days had gone to Mecca disguised as a pilgrim, dug up Persian temples, slain uncivil Moslems with his own hand, and altogether constituted a minor Eastern question in his one boisterous self, had now settled down (a Government post having been created expressly to keep him quiet) into a life divided between furious arch?ological disputes and faithful service of the fair sex. He was at this moment promenading his shrunken person-which somehow straightened out into military vigour in the presence of young ladies-round a large table spread with innumerable cups of tea, plates of strawberries and dishes of bonbons. Of this he partook only in the spirit, offering it all, together with the service of a severe housekeeper and a black, barefooted Moor, for the consumption of his fair guests. The other guest, indeed, a gaunt and classic female arch?ologist, habited in peacock plush, was fair only in mind; and Colonel Dunstan, devoted as he was to all womankind, was wont to neglect such intellectual grace when in the presence of more obvious external beauty. Hence, at this moment, the poor

arch?ological lady, accustomed to a shower of invitations to lunch, tea, dinner, and play-tickets from the gallant though terrible old man, was abandoned to the care of the housekeeper until she could be passed over to that of Greenleaf. And Colonel Dunstan, with his shrunken tissues and shrunken waistcoat regaining a martial ampleness, as the withered rose of Dr. Heidegger's experiment regained colour and perfume in the basin of Elixir of Youth, was wandering slowly about (for he never sat still) heaping food and conversation on Miss Flodden. He was informing her, among anecdotes of dead celebrities, reminiscences of Oriental warfare, principles of Persian colour arrangement, and panegyrics of virtuous incipient actresses, that Greenleaf was a capital fellow, although he would doubtless have been improved by military training; a scholar, and the son of a great scholar (Thomas Greenleaf's great edition of the "Mahabarata," which she should read some day when he, Colonel Dunstan, taught her Sanskrit), and that, for the rest, philanthropy, socialism, and the lower classes were a great mistake, of which the Ancient Persians would have made very short work indeed. To Greenleaf also he conveyed sundry information, not troubling to make it quite intelligible, for Colonel Dunstan considered that young men ought to be taught their place, which place was nowhere. So from various mutterings and ejaculations addressed to Miss Flodden, such as, "Ah, your great aunt, the duchess-what a woman she was! she had the shoulders of the Venus of Milo-I always told her she ought to ride out in the desert to excavate Palmyra with me;" and "that dear little cousin of yours-why didn't she let me teach her Arabic?" it became gradually apparent to Greenleaf that the old gentleman, who seemed as versed in Burke's Peerage and Baronetage as in cuneiform inscriptions, had known many generations of ladies of the house of Flodden. Nay, most unexpected of all, that the young lady introduced by Greenleaf had been a familiar object to the learned and hot-tempered Colonel ever since she had left the nursery. Greenleaf experienced a slight pang on this discovery: he had forgotten, in his own unworldliness, that worldly people like Colonel Dunstan and Miss Flodden probably moved in the same society.

"And your sister, how is she?" went on the old gentleman; "is she as bright as ever, now she is married, and has she got that little air mutin still? It's months since I've seen her; why didn't you bring her with you, my dear? And does she also take an interest in Rhodian pots, the dear, beautiful creature?"

Miss Flodden's face darkened as he slowly spun out his questions.

"I don't know what my sister is doing. I don't live with her any longer, Colonel Dunstan; and she is always busy rushing about with people; and I'm busy with pots and practising the fiddle; I've turned hermit since quite a long time."

"Well, well, practising the fiddle isn't a bad thing; Orpheus with his lute, you know. But you'd much better let me teach you Greek, my dear, and come to Asia Minor next winter with me. Lady Betty's coming, and we'll see what we can dig up among those sots of Turks. You can get capital tents at that fellow's-what's his name-in Piccadilly. And how are your people? I saw your brother Herbert the other day at a sale. He told me your father was determined not to let us have your collection, more's the pity! And what's become of that nice young fellow, Hermann Struw?, who used to be at your house? He hasn't got a wife yet, eh?"

Miss Flodden took no notice of these questions. She passed them over in disdainful silence, Greenleaf thought, till she suddenly said coldly:

"I should think Mr. Struw? will have no more difficulty in finding a wife than in hiring a shooting, or buying a sham antique."

She was a very beautiful woman, Greenleaf said to himself. She was very tall (Greenleaf wondered whether the women of that lot, of the idlers, were always a head taller than those of his acquaintance), and slender almost to thinness, with a rigid, undeveloped sort of grace which contrasted with the extreme composure-that sort of taking things for granted-of her manner. Old Mr. Dunstan had just alluded to her mother having been a Welshwoman; and Greenleaf thought he saw very plainly the Celt in this superficially Saxon-looking girl. That sharp perfection of feature-features almost over-much chiselled and finished in every minutest detail-that excessive mobility of mouth and eyes, did not belong to the usual kind of English pretty women. She was so much of a Celt, despite her Northumbrian name, that the pale-brown of her hair-hair crisp and close round her ears-gave him almost the impression of a wig; underneath it must really be jet black.

Notwithstanding a slight weariness at Colonel Dunstan's social reminiscences and questions, she seemed pleased and rather excited at finding herself in the sanctuary of his learning. While quietly taking care of the old gentleman, and much concerned lest he should stumble over chairs and footstools in his polite haverings, she let her eyes ramble over the expanse of books which covered the walls, evidently impressed by all that must be in them. And from the timid though pertinacious fashion in which she questioned him, it was clear that she thought him an oracle, although an oracle rather difficult to keep to the point.

"And now," she finally said, with a little suppressed desperation, "won't you show me some of the Rhodian ware, Colonel Dunstan? It would be so awfully good of you."

Colonel Dunstan suddenly unwrinkled himself with considerable importance. He had forgotten the Rhodian ware, and rather resented its existence. Why, bless you! He didn't possess such things as pots; and as to going to the Museum, it was the most cold-taking place in the world. He would show her his books some day, and the casts of the cuneiform inscriptions. She must come to tea again soon with him. Did she know Miss Tilly Tandem, who had just been engaged by Irving? He should like them to meet. That was her photograph.

"But," said Miss Flodden-Val Flodden it appeared she was called-"mayn't I-couldn't I-be allowed to see those Rhodian pots also?" She was dreadfully crestfallen, and had a little disappointed eagerness, like a child.

"Of course you can," Colonel Dunstan answered, with infinite disdain. "I don't think anything of Rhodian ware, you know-mere debased copy of the old Persian. Those Greeks of the islands were a poor lot, then as now. Believe me, those Greeks have always been a set of confounded liars and their account of Salamis will be set right some day. But if you want to see it, why of course you can. Greenleaf, take Miss Val Flodden to see the Rhodian ware some day soon; do you hear, Greenleaf, eh?"

"Yes, sir." Greenleaf had always said sir to Colonel Dunstan, like a little boy, or a subordinate. It made up for a kind of contempt with which the learned, but worldly and hot-tempered old gentleman very unreasonably inspired him. Greenleaf was full of prejudices, like all very gentle and apostolic persons.

"There's Greenleaf-go with him some morning," said Colonel Dunstan, regaining his temper; "but, bless me! Why haven't you had any more strawberries, Miss Val?"

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