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   Chapter 4 No.4

Vanitas By Vernon Lee Characters: 13174

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

As Greenleaf looked up from the article on the "Rochdale Pioneers and Co-operation" and glanced out of the window at the smoke-veiled, soot-engrained Northern towns, and the bleak-green North country hillsides which flashed past the express, he did not realise at all clearly that he was going to see once more Miss Val Flodden, and see her in the unexpected relations of hostess and guest.

She had indeed, during their last ramble through the British Museum, said something vague about his coming to Yetholme if ever he came North; but he had given the invitation no weight and had forgotten it completely. His journey was due to a circumstance more important in his eyes than the visit of a young lady to his studio, and would be crowned by an event far more satisfactory than the meeting with a stray acquaintance.

For Sir Percy Flodden had at last decided to sell the famous Yetholme collection of majolica and Palissy ware; and the South Kensington authorities had selected Leonard Greenleaf, potter and writer on pottery, to verify the catalogue and conclude the purchase. It was one of Greenleaf's socialist maxims that no important works of art should be hidden from public enjoyment in the houses of private collectors; an Act of Parliament, in his opinion, should force all owners to sell to the nation, supposing that arguments in favour of true citizenship and true love of art had failed to make them bestow their property gratis. Greenleaf had agitated during several years to induce the public to make the first bid for the Yetholme collection; difficulties of all kinds had stood in the way, and the owner himself had become restive in the negotiations; but now, at last, this immortal earthenware had been saved from further private collections and secured for the enjoyment of everybody.

This being the case, it was not wonderful if Miss Flodden was thrown into the shade by her family collection; and if Greenleaf had gradually got to think very little about her of late-I say of late, because until the Yetholme sale had diverted his mind from theory to practice, Miss Flodden had played a certain part in Greenleaf's thoughts. Her sudden intrusion upon the monotony of his existence had made him ponder once more upon his undergraduate's dream of reclaiming the upper as well as the lower classes; a dream which had gradually vanished before practical contact with the pressing want of the poor. He had forgotten, during the last five or six years, that the leisured classes existed otherwise than as oppressors of the overworked ones. But now there had returned to the surface his constitutional craving for harmony, his horror of class warfare, a horror all the greater that in this very gentle soul there was a possibility of intense hatred. Why should not the whole of society work out harmoniously a new and better social order? After all, he and his chosen friends belonged to the privileged class, and only the privileged class could give the generous initiative required to counteract the selfish claiming of rights from below. Mankind was not wicked and perverse; and the injustice, wantonness, and cruelty of the rich were, doubtless, a result of their ignorance: they must be shown that they could do without so many things and that other folk were wanting those things so very much. And, half consciously, the image of Val Flodden rose up to concentrate and typify the ideas she had evoked. She was the living example of the ignorance of all higher right and wrong, of all the larger facts of existence, in which the so-called upper classes lived on no better than heathen blacks.

In these reflections Greenleaf had never claimed for Miss Flodden any individual superiority: to do so would have been to diminish her value as a type and an illustration. She had become, in his thoughts, the natural woman as produced, or rather as destroyed, by the evil constitution of idle society. She appeared, indeed, to have a personal charm, but this was doubtless a class peculiarity which his inexperience perceived as an individual one. It was the sole business of idle folk, Greenleaf said to himself, to make themselves charming, and they doubtless carried this quality as high as blacksmiths do strength of arm, and sempstresses nimbleness of finger: for the occasional examples of idle folk without any charm at all quickly faded from Greenleaf's logical memory. Also, he forgot for the moment, that many women, neither ignorant nor idle, the three Miss Carpenters for instance, who lived in a servantless flat in Holborn and worked in the East End, had as much charm, though not quite the same; and that there were tricks of manner and speech, affectations of school-boy slang, yokel ways, about Miss Flodden herself, which affected his sensitive nerves as ungraceful. But, be this as it may, the acquaintance with Miss Flodden had set his thoughts on the disadvantages of the upper classes, and he found it convenient to use Miss Flodden as an illustration thereof.

Besides, every now and then, Greenleaf had felt, in those long talks at the Museum, a curious pang of pity for her. In Greenleaf's nature, more thoughtful than logical, the dominating forces were a kind of transcendent ?stheticism, and an extraordinary, also transcendent, compassion-compassion which, coming upon him in veritable stabs, went to his head and soon passed the boundaries of individual pain and wrong. This man, who aspired towards the future and really hankered painfully after the past, was like some medi?val monk all quivering at the sufferings of a far-distant, impersonal Godhead, for the sake of whose wrongs he could even hate fiercely, and for the sake of whose more than individual sufferings he could feel, every now and then, overwhelming pity for some small, ill-treated bird, or beast, or man. That this girl-intelligent and good-had been brought up not merely in utter indifference to real evil (tempered only by a vague fear of a black man who carried you to hell and a much blacker man who turned you out of society) but in ignorance of every one of the nobler and more beautiful activities of life; this perception of moral and intellectual starvation, veiled his mind with tears and made him spiritually choke, like the sight of a supperless ragged child, or of a dog that had lost its master.

Such impressions had been common enough in their two or three meetings. They had met several times in the Museum, and once at Messrs. Boyce's works, the utter unworldliness of Greenleaf's mind preventing his asking himself, even once, whether su

ch proceedings did not display unusual recklessness on the part of a girl belonging to Miss Flodden's set; so much that he did not even take heed of Miss Flodden's occasional remarks showing that this liberty, this familiarity with a man and a stranger, were possible only because she had deliberately turned her back on her former companions. Indifferent to personal matters, he had not even understood very plainly (although he had a pleasant, vague sense of something similar) that unfamiliarity with the class and type to which he belonged had given the girl a sense of absolute safety which allowed her to go about and discuss everything with this man from a different sphere, as she might have done with another woman. This knowledge was vague and scarce conscious, taking the form rather of indignation with Miss Flodden's world and pity for Miss Flodden's self, whenever, incidentally, she said things which revealed the habit of an opposite state of things, the habit of a woman's liberty of action, speech and feeling being cramped by disbelief in men's purity and honour, or rather by knowledge of their thinly varnished baseness.

Thus it had come about during that dim and delicate London June that the young lady from Eaton Square had become a familiar figure in the mind, if not in the life, of the Socialist potter of Church Street, Bloomsbury. There was, of course, a certain exotic strain in the matter; and as they rambled among the solemn sitting Pharaohs, the Roman Emperors and headless Greek demigods, and the rows of glass cases in the cool, empty Museum, Greenleaf occasionally experienced, while discussing various forms of art and describing dead civilisations, a little shock of surprise on realising the nature of his companion, on catching every now and then an intonation and an expression which told of ball-rooms and shooting-houses, on perceiving suddenly, silhouetted against the red wall, or reflected in a glass case, the slender, dapper figure in its plain, tight clothes; the tight, straight-featured head beneath its close little bonnet. But this sense of the unusual and the exotic was subdued by the sense of the real, the actually present, just as, in some foreign or Eastern town, our disbelief in the possibility of it all is oddly moulded into a sort of familiarity by the knowledge that we are our ourselves, and ourselves are on the spot.

It was different now; as his train jogged slowly along the banks of the Tweed, between the bare, green hills and the leafy little ravines of Northumberland. A couple of months' separation had gradually reduced Miss Flodden to an unfamiliar, and almost an abstract being. She was the subject no longer of impressions, but merely of reflections; and of reflections which had grown daily more general, as the perfume of individuality faded away. Greenleaf lived so much more in his thoughts than in his life that creatures very speedily got to represent nothing but problems to him. At this moment his main interest in life was to secure the Yetholme collection of majolica and Palissy work; the fact that he was going, in a few minutes, to meet Miss Flodden was not more important than the fact that he would have to get his portmanteau out of the van. And as to Miss Flodden, she represented to him, in a rather rubbed-out way, the problem of upper class want of education and moral earnestness.

It seemed to him also, as he shook hands with Miss Flodden, in her cart at Yetholme station, and took his place beside her in the vehicle, that not only all his own feelings about Miss Flodden, but Miss Flodden herself had changed. She had grown so much more like everybody else, he thought, or he had got to see her so much more in her reality. There was nothing exotic about her now, wrapped in a big, fuzzy cloak, a big cap drawn over her head, concealing the close, light-brown curls, and making her face so very much less keen in feature. He wondered why he had seen so much of the Celt in her, and such a far-fetched nervous fineness. She seemed also, in her almost monosyllabic conversation, mainly preoccupied with his portmanteau, the hours of his train, the names of the villages and hills they passed, and similar commonplace matters; whereas, in London he had noted the eager insistence with which she had immediately set the conversation and firmly kept it on intellectual and artistic problems.

The cart rolled away by high-lying fields of pale green barley and oats shivering in the cold breeze, between the stunted hedges, whence an occasional wind-warped thorn-tree rose black against the pale yellow afternoon sky, with every now and then a bunch of blue cranesbill, or a little fluttering group of poppies, taking the importance of bushes and trees in this high, bleak, Northern country. Great savage dogs, with chests and pointed ears like the antique Cerberus, came barking out of the black stone cottages; and over the fields, from the tree-tops just visible in the river valley below, circled innumerable rooks, loudly cawing. The road made a sudden dip, and they were on a level with the wide, shingly bed of the Tweed, scattered sheep grazing along the banks. Then a black belfry appeared among black ash trees; a row of black cottages bordered the road with their hollyhocks and asters; and the cart rolled in between rows of rook-peopled trees, and stopped at last before a long, black stone house, sunk, as in some parts of Scotland, into a kind of trench. There was a frightful alarum of dogs of all kinds, rushing up from all directions. But Miss Flodden led Greenleaf into the house and through various passages, without any human being appearing, save a boy, to whom she threw the reins at the door. At last, in a big, dark drawing-room, a child was discovered helping herself to milk and bread and jam at a solitary table.

"They're all out," she said, taking no notice of Greenleaf, although scanning him with the critical eyes of six or seven. "Cut me a scone, Val, and put butter on it, but not too much."

"This is a step-sister of mine," explained Miss Flodden, laconically, nodding in the child's direction, as she threw aside her cloak, drew off her gloves, and began pouring out tea. "I say, leave that scone alone until I can cut it for you. It's rather hard lines on one for the family to have its tea and leave us only the cold dregs."

She looked listless and calm and bored. Greenleaf wondered how he could ever have romanced about this handsome, commonplace young woman. Then he began to speculate as to where the famous collection was kept.

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