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   Chapter 6 No.6

Vanitas By Vernon Lee Characters: 12233

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

"Tell me more about the Miss Carpenters," said Miss Flodden shyly, keeping her eyes fixed on the rapidly flowing twist of water between the big shingle, where every now and then came the spurt of a salmon's leap.

They were seated, after tea, and another hard day's cataloguing, under some beech trees that overhung the Tweed. From the fields opposite-no longer England, already Scotland-came the pant and whirr of a threshing-machine; while from the woods issued the caw of innumerable rooks, blackening the sky. A heron rose from among the reeds of the bank, and mounted, printing the pale sky with his Japanese outline. There was incredible peacefulness, not unmixed with austerity, in the gurgle of the water, the green of the banks, the scent of damp earth.

Greenleaf, who was very reserved about his friends, so much that one friend might almost have imagined him to possess no others, had somehow slid into speaking of his little Bloomsbury world to this girl, who was so foreign to it. It had come home to him how utterly Miss Flodden had lived out of contact with all the various concerns of life, and out of sight of the people who have such. Except pottery and violin music, come into her existence by the merest accident, and remaining there utterly isolated, she had no experience, save of the vanities of the world. But what struck him most, and seemed to him even more piteous, was her habit of regarding these vanities as matters not of amusement, but of important business. To her, personally, it would seem, indeed, that frocks, horses, diamonds, invitations to this house or that, and all the complications of social standing, afforded little or no satisfaction. But then she accepted the fact of being an eccentric, a creature not quite all it should be; and she expected everyone else to be different, to be seriously engaged in the pursuit of the things she, personally, and owing to her eccentricity, did not want.

It was extraordinary how, while she expressed her own distaste for various weaknesses and shortcomings, she defended those who gave way to them as perfectly normal creatures. Greenleaf was horrified to hear her explain, with marvellous perception of how and wherefore, and without any blame, the manner in which women may gradually allow men not their husbands to pay their dressmaker's bills, and gradually to become masters of their purse and of themselves: the necessity of a new frock at some race or ball, the desire to outshine another woman, to get into royalty's notice, and the fear of incensing a husband already hard up-all this seemed to Miss Flodden perfectly natural and incontrovertible; and she pleaded for those who gave way under such pressure.

"Of course I wouldn't do it," she said, twisting a long straw in her hands; "it strikes me as bad form, don't you know; but then I'm peculiar, and there are so many things in the world which other folk don't mind, and which I can't bear. I don't like some of their talk, and I don't like their not running quite straight. But then I seem to have been born with a skin less than one ought to have."

Greenleaf listened in silent horror. In the course of discussing how much the world might be improved by some of his socialistic plans, this young lady of four or five and twenty had very simply and quietly unveiled a state of corruption, of which, in his tirades against wealth and luxury, he had had but the vaguest idea. "You see," Miss Flodden had remarked, "it's because one has to have so many things which one's neighbours have, whether they give one much pleasure or not, that a woman gets into such false positions, which make people, if things get too obvious, treat her in a beastly, unjust way. But women have always been told that they must have this and that, and go to such and such a house, otherwise they'd not keep up in it all; and then they're fallen upon afterwards. It's awfully unfair. Why, of course, if one hadn't always been told that one must have frocks, and carriages, and must go to Marlborough House, one wouldn't get married. Of course it's different with me, because I'm queer, and I like making pots, and am willing to know no one. But then that's all wrong, at least my married sister is always saying so. And, of course, I'm not going to marry, however much they bore me about it."

"You speak as if women got married merely for the sake of living like their neighbours," remarked Greenleaf; "that's absurd."

Miss Flodden, seated on a stone, looked up at him under his beech tree. Her face bore a curious expression of incredulity dashed with contempt. Could he be a Pharisee?

"There may be exceptions," she answered, "and perhaps you may know some. But if a woman were secure of her living, and did not want things, why should she get married?" It was as if she had said, Why should a Hindoo widow burn herself? "There must be some inducement," she added, looking into the water and plucking at the grass, "to give oneself into the keeping of another person." Her face had that same contraction, as once when she had mentioned the matter before.

"Good God," thought Greenleaf, "into what ugly bits of life had this girl been forced to look!" And he felt a great pity and indignation about things in general.

Miss Flodden sent a stone skimming across the river, as if to dismiss the subject, and then it was that she said rather hesitatingly:

"Tell me more about the Miss Carpenters."

She had an odd, timid curiosity about Greenleaf's friends, about everyone who did anything, as if she feared to intrude on them even in thought.

Greenleaf had spoken about them before and not unintentionally. These three sisters, living in their flat off Holborn, doing all their housework themselves, and yet finding time to work among the poor, to be cultivated and charming, were a stalking horse of his, an example he liked to bring before this member of fast society.

He had taken his refusal by one of the sisters with a philosophy which had astonished himself, for he certainly had thought that Delia was very dear to him. She was dear in a way now.

But he felt quite pleased at her marriage with young Farquhar of the Museum, and he rather enjoyed talking about her. He told Miss Flodden of Maggie Carpenter's work among the sweaters, and of the readings of English literature she and Clara gave to the shop-girls; and he was a little shocked, when he told her of the young woman from Shoolbred's who had borrowed a volume of Webster, that Val Flodden had never heard of that eminent dramatist, and thought he was the dictionary. He described the little suppers they gave in their big kitchen, where the one or two guests helped to lay the table and to wash up afterwards, previous to going to the highest seats in the Albert Hall, or to some socialist lecture; then the return on foot through the silent, black Bloomsbury streets. He made it sound even more idyllic than it really was. Then he spoke of Delia and the piano lessons she gave and the poems she wrote. He even repeated two of the poems out loud and felt that they were very beautiful.

"They can never bore themselves," remarked Miss Flodden, pensively.

"Bore themselves?" responded Greenleaf.

"Yes: bore themselves and feel they just must have something different to think about, like birds beating against cage bars." Then, after a pause, she said vaguely and hesitatingly: "I wish there were a chance for one to know the Miss Carpenters."

Greenleaf brightened up. This was what he wished. "Of course you shall know them, if you care, Miss Flodden, only--;"

"Only-you mean that they would think me a bore and an intruder."

"No," answered Greenleaf, he scarcely knew why, "that's not what I meant. But you must remember that you and they belong to different classes of society."

Miss Flodden's face contracted. "Ah," she exclaimed angrily. "Why must you throw that in my face? You have said that sort of thing several times before. Why do you?"

Why, indeed? For Greenleaf could not desist, every now and then, from bringing up that fact. It made the girl quiver, but he could not help himself; it was an attempt to find out whether she was really in earnest, which he occasionally doubted; and also it was a natural reaction against certain cynical assumptions, certain takings for granted on Miss Flodden's part that the vanity and corruption of her miserable little clique permeated the whole of the world-of the world which did not even know, in many instances, that there was such a thing as a smart lot!

But now he was sorry.

"Indeed," he said sorrowfully, "such a gulf between classes unfortunately still exists. In our civilisation, where luxury and the money which buys it go for so much, those who work must necessarily be separate from those who play."

"Heaven knows you have no right to abuse us for having money," exclaimed Miss Flodden, much hurt. "Why, if I don't get married, and I shan't, I shall never have a penny to bless myself with."

"It's a question of the lot one belongs to," answered Greenleaf unkindly; but added, rather remorsefully: "Would you like me to give you a letter for the Miss Carpenters when next you go to town? I have," he hesitated a little, "talked a good deal about you with them."

"Really!" exclaimed Miss Flodden quickly. "That's awfully good of you-I mean to give me a letter-only I fear it will bore them. I shall be going to town for a week or two in October. May I call on them then, do you think?"

"Of course." And Greenleaf, who was a business-like man, drew out his pocket-book, full of little patterns for pots and notes for lectures, and wrote on a clean page:

"Mem.: Letter for the Miss Carpenters for Miss Flodden."

"I will write it to-night or to-morrow; you shall have it before I leave. By the way, that train the day after to-morrow is at 6.20, is it not?"

"Yes," answered Miss Flodden. "I wish you could stay longer."

And they walked home.

As they wandered through the high-lying fields of green oats and yellow barley, among whose long beards the low sun made golden dust, with the dark, greenish Cheviots on one side, purple clouds hanging on their moor sides, and the three cones of the Eildons rising, hills of fairy-land, faint upon the golden sunset mist-as they wandered talking of various things, pottery, philosophy, and socialism, Greenleaf felt stealing across his soul a peacefulness as unlike his usual mood, as this northern afternoon, with soughing grain and twittering of larks, was different from the grime and bustle of London. He knew, now, that Miss Delia Carpenter's refusal had been best for him; his nature was too thin to allow of his giving himself both to a wife and family, and to the duties and studies which claimed him; he would have starved the affections of the first while neglecting the second. His life must always be a solitary one with his work. But into this rather cheerless solitude, there seemed to be coming something, he could scarcely tell what. Greenleaf believed in the possible friendship between a man and a woman; if it had not existed often hitherto, that was the fault of our corrupt bringing up. But it was possible and necessary; a thing different from, more perfect and more useful, than any friendship between persons of the same sex. But more different still, breezier, more robust and serene, than love even at its best. And had he not always wished for that sister, that Emily who had never existed? Of course he did not contemplate seeing very much of Miss Flodden; still less did he admit to himself that this strange, reserved, yet outspoken girl might be the friend he craved for. But he felt a curious satisfaction, despite his better reason, which protested against everything abnormal, and which explained a great deal by premature experience of the world's ugliness-he felt a satisfaction at Miss Flodden's aversion to marriage. He could not have explained why, but he knew in a positive manner that this girl never had been, and never would be, in love; that this young woman of a frivolous and fast lot, was a sort of female Hippolytus, but without a male Diana; and he held tight to the knowledge as to a treasure.

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