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   Chapter 3 No.3

Vanitas By Vernon Lee Characters: 13398

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

The discovery that he had introduced two people who had already been acquainted for years, depressed Greenleaf with something more than the mere sense of slight comicality. Indeed, Greenleaf, like many apostolic persons, was deficient in the sense of the comic, and destitute of all fear of social solecisms. As he waited under the portico of the Museum, the pigeons fluttering from the black temple frieze on to the sooty steps, and the rusty students pressing through the swinging glass doors, he felt a vague dissatisfaction-the sort of faint crossness common in children, and of which no contact with the world, the contact with its grating or planing powers, had cured this dreamer; but such crossness leaves in the candid mind a doubt of possible vicariousness, of being caused by something not its ostensible reason, or being caused by the quite undefinable. When at last, from out of the blue haze and gauzy blackness of the Bloomsbury summer, there emerged an object of interest, and the slender recognised figure detached itself from the crowd of unreal other creatures, on foot, in cabs, and behind barrows, he was aware of a certain flat and prosaic quality in things since that tea-party at Colonel Dunstan's. And he was very angry with himself, and consequently with everything else, when it struck him suddenly that perhaps he was annoyed at the little eccentric adventure-the adventure of the lady dropped from the clouds and never seen again-turning into a humdrum acquaintance, which might even linger on, with a girl about whose family he now knew everything, who, on her side, was now certain that he was a gentleman, and who did really and seriously intend to find out all about pots.

They walked quickly upstairs, exchanging very few words, save on the subject of umbrellas and umbrella tickets; and when they had arrived in the pottery room, they became wonderfully business-like. Miss Flodden was business-like simply because she was extraordinarily interested in the matter in hand; and Greenleaf was business-like because he was ashamed of having perhaps thought about Miss Flodden apart from pottery, and therefore most anxious, for his own moral dignity, to look at her and pottery as indissolubly connected.

As the narrator of this small history is unhappily an ignoramus on the subject of pottery, prudence forbids all attempt to repeat the questions of Miss Flodden and the answers of Greenleaf on the subject of clay, colours, fixing glaze and similar mysteries. These were duly discussed for some time while the patient assistant unlocked case after case, and let them handle the great Hispano-Moorish dishes, heraldic creatures spreading wings among their arabesques of yellow brown goldiness; the rotund vases and ewers where Roman consuls and Jewish maidens and Greek gods were crowded together, yellow and green and brown, on the deep sea-blue of Castel Durante and Gubbio majolica; the fanciful scalloped blue upon blue nymphs and satyrs of seventeenth century Savona, which looked as if the very dishes and plates had wished to wear furbelows and perukes; and the precious pieces, cracked and broken, of Brusa tiles and Rhodian and Damascene platters, with the gorgeous crimson tulips-opening vistas of Oriental bean-fields-and fantastic green and blue fritillaries standing almost in relief on the thick white glaze.

"I suppose it's being brought up among the Yetholme collection that makes you know so much about pottery?" remarked Greenleaf, in considerable surprise: "you haven't been to this part of the Museum before?"

Miss Flodden raised her pale blue luminous eyes.

"Do you know, I've never been to the Museum since I was a tiny girl, at least, except once, when my married sister conducted a party of New York friends. I thought we were going to see stuffed birds, and I was so surprised to see all those beautiful Greek things-I had seen statues once when we went to Rome-I wanted so much to look at them a little, but my friends thought they weren't in good repair, and wanted to have tea and go to the park, so they scooted me round among the Egyptian things and the reading rooms and out by the door. Yes, the little I know I have learned by playing with our things at home. Some day you must see them, Mr. Greenleaf."

Greenleaf did not answer for a moment. Good heavens! here was a young woman of twenty-four or twenty-five who had spent part of every year of her life in London, and had been only once to the British Museum, and then had expected to see stuffed birds! And the girl apparently an instinctive artist, extraordinarily quick and just in her appreciations.

Then there were other things to do, besides opening galleries on Sundays and promenading East-end workmen in company with young men from Toynbee Hall! And Greenleaf's heart withered-as one's mouth withers at the contact of strong green tea or caper sauce-with indignation at all the waste of intellectual power and intellectual riches implied in this hideous present misarrangement of all things. Was it possible that the so-called upper classes, or at least some members thereof, were in one way as much the victims of injustice and barbarism as the lower classes, off whose labour they basely subsisted?

The thought came over him as his eyes met Miss Flodden's face-that delicately chiselled, mobile young face which was suddenly contracted with a smile of cynical, yet resigned bitterness. He made that reflection once more, when with the wand-bearing custodian imperturbably occupying the only seat in the place, they leaned upon the glass case, and she asked him, and he told her, about the various currents in art history-the form element of ancient Greece, the colour element of the Orientals, the patterns of Persian ware, the outline figures on Greek and Etruscan vases-things which he imagined every child to know, and about which, as about Greeks, Orientals, and Etruscans, and Latin and geography and most matters, this girl seemed completely ignorant.

"My word," she exclaimed, and that little piece of slang grated horribly on Greenleaf's nerves; "how very interesting things are when one knows something about them! Do you suppose all things would be equally interesting if one knew about them? Or would it only be every now and then, just as with other matters, balls, and picnics, and so forth? Or does one get interested whenever one does anything as hard as one can, like hard riding, or rowing, or playing tennis properly? Some books seem so awfully interesting, you know; but there are such a lot of others that one would just throw into the fire if they didn't belong to Mudie. But somehow a thread seems always to be wanting.

It's like trying to play a game without knowing the rules. How have you got to know all these things, Mr. Greenleaf? I mean all the connections between things; and could anybody get the connecting links if they tried, or must one have a special vocation?"

Greenleaf was embarrassed how to answer. He really could not realise the extraordinary emptiness in this young woman's mind; and at the same time he felt strangely touched and indignant, as he did sometimes when giving some little street Arab a good thing which it had never eaten before, and did not clearly know how to begin eating.

"Have you-have you-never read at all methodically?" he asked. He really meant, "Have you never received any education?"

Miss Flodden reflected for a moment. "No. Somehow one never thought of reading as a methodical thing, as a business, you know. Dancing and hunting and playing tennis and seeing people, all that's a business, because one has to do it. At least one has to do it as long as one hadn't turned into a savage; everyone else has to do it. Of course, there's the fiddle; I've practised that rather methodically, but it was because I liked the sound of the thing so much, and I once had a little German-my brother's German crammer for diplomacy-who taught me. And then one knew that, unless one got up at five in the morning and did it regularly, it wouldn't be done at all. But reading is different. One just picks up a book before dinner, or while being dressed. And the books are usually such rot."

It was getting late, and Greenleaf conducted Miss Flodden back to her parasol, where it was waiting among the vast and shabby umbrellas of the studious, very incongruous in its semi-masculine, yet rather futile smartness, at the door of the reading-room.

"It is all very beautiful," remarked Miss Flodden, as they descended the Museum steps, with the pigeons fluttering all round in the dim, smoky air, nodding her head pensively.

"What?" asked Greenleaf. He had an almost conventual hatred of noise and bustle, which seemed to him, perhaps because he had elected to work among them, the utter profanation of life; and to his ?sthetic soul, the fact that many thousands of people lived among smoke and smuts, and never saw a clear stream, a dainty meadow of grass and daisies, or a sky just washed into blueness by a shower, was one of the chief reasons for condemning modern industrial civilisation.

"Why, all that-the pale blue mist with the black houses quite soft, like black flakes against it, and the green of the trees against the black walls, and the moving crowd." Then, as if suddenly taking courage to say something rather dreadful, she said: "Tell me about Colonel Dunstan. Is he really so learned, does he know such a lot of things?"

Greenleaf laughed at the simplicity with which she asked this. She seemed to have a difficulty in realising that anyone could know anything.

"Yes, he knows a great lot of things. He is one of the first Orientalists in Europe, I believe-at least my father, who was an Oriental scholar himself, used to say so; and he is a great arch?ologist, besides his knowledge of Eastern things, and of course he knows more about Oriental art, and in fact all art, than almost anyone."

"Does he know," hesitated Miss Flodden, "what you were telling me about the different currents of ancient art, Persian and Greek and Etruscan, and the way in which artists lived then-all that you were telling me just now?"

Greenleaf laughed. "Good gracious, yes; I know nothing compared with him. Why, most of the little I know I learned at his lectures. Shall I hail that hansom for you, Miss Flodden?"

They were crossing Bedford Square. The birds were singing in the plane trees, and from the open windows of a solemn Georgian house, with its courses of white stone, and its classic door frieze, came the notes of a sonata of Mozart. All was wonderfully peaceful under the hazy summer sky.

"No-not yet. Tell me, then: since Colonel Dunstan knows so many interesting things, why in the world does he live like that?"

"Like what, Miss Flodden?"

"Why, as if-well, as if he knew nothing at all. Why does he go every afternoon a round of calls on silly women, gossiping about their dresses, and listening to all-well-the horrid, because it often is horrid, nonsense and filth people talk? I used to meet him about everywhere, when I used still to go into the world. He often came to my sister's-I thought he was just an old-well, an old creature like the rest of them, collecting gossip to retail it next door. Since he really knows all about beautiful things, why doesn't he stick to them-why does he go about with stupid folk-he must know lots of clever ones?"

"Because-because Colonel Dunstan is a man of the world," answered Greenleaf bitterly; "because he cares about art, and history, and philosophy, but he also cares for pretty women, and pretty frocks, and good manners, and white hands."

"But-why shouldn't one care-doesn't everyone care-for-well, good manners?"

He had spoken with such violence that Miss Flodden had turned round. Her question died away as she looked into his face. It had hitherto struck her merely by its great kindness, and a sort of gentle candour which was rare. Now, the clean-shaven features and longish hair gave her the impression of a fanatic priest, at least what she imagined such to be.

"In this world, as it now exists," continued Greenleaf in an undertone, which was almost a hiss, "things are so divided that a man must choose between people who are pretty and pleasant and well-mannered; and people who are ugly and brutish and hateful, because the first are idle and unjust, and the second overworked and oppressed. Nowadays, more even than when Christ taught it, a man cannot serve both God and Mammon; and God, at present, at least God's servants, live among the ignorant, and dirty, and suffering. Shan't I stop that hansom for you, Miss Flodden?"

"Yes," she answered with a catch in her breath, as if overcome by surprise, almost as by an attack.

"Good-bye," he said, closing the flaps of the hansom.

Miss Flodden's hand mechanically dropped on to one of them, and her head, with the little black bonnet all points and bows of lace, was looking straight into space, as one overcome by great astonishment.

Greenleaf sickened with shame at his vehemence.

"You will let me show you the Etruscan things some day?" he cried, as the hansom rolled off.

Ah, could he never, never learn to restrain himself? What business had he to talk of such things to such a woman. To let the holy of holies become, most likely, a subject of mere idle curiosity and idle talk?

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