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   Chapter 7 No.7

Vanitas By Vernon Lee Characters: 9626

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

The next day, Greenleaf was a little out of conceit with himself and the world at large: a vague depression and irritation got hold of him. Before breakfast, while ruminating over a list of books for Miss Flodden's reading, he had mechanically taken up a volume which lay on the drawing-room table. There were not many books at Yetholme, except those which were never moved from the library shelves; and the family's taste ran to Rider Haggard and sporting novels; while the collection put in his room, and bearing the name of Valentine Flodden, consisted either of things he already knew by heart-a selection from Browning, a volume of Tolstoy, and an Imitation of Christ;-or of others-as sundry works on Esoteric Buddhism, a handbook of Perspective, and a novel by Marie Corelli-which he felt little desire to read. The book that he took up was from the Circulating Library, Henry James's "Princess Casamassima." He had read it, of course, and dived into it-the last volume it was-at random. Do authors ever reflect how much influence they must occasionally have, coming by accident, to arouse some latent feeling, or to reinforce some dominant habit of mind? Certainly Henry James had been possessed of no ill-will towards Miss Val Flodden, whom indeed he might have made the heroine of some amiable story. Yet Henry James, at that moment, did Val Flodden a very bad turn. Greenleaf got up from the book, after twenty minutes' random reading, in a curiously suspicious and aggressive mood. Of course he never dreamed that he, a gentleman of some independent means, a scholar, a man who had known the upper classes long before he had ever come in contact with the lower, could have anything in common with poor Hyacinth, the socialist bookbinder, pining for luxury and the love of a great lady; neither was there much resemblance between Christina Light, married to Prince Casamassima, and this young Val Flodden married to nobody; yet the book depressed him horribly, by its suggestion of the odd freaks of curiosity which relieve the weariness of idle lives. And the depression was such, that he could not hold his tongue on the subject.

"Have you read that book-the 'Princess Casamassima'-Miss Flodden?" he asked at breakfast.

"Yes," answered the girl; "isn't it good? and so natural, don't you think?"

"You don't mean that you think the Princess natural-you don't think there ever could be such a horrible woman?"

He was quite sure there might be, indeed the fear of such an one quite overpowered him at this very moment; and he asked in hopes of Miss Flodden saying that there were no Princess Casamassimas.

Something in his tone appeared to irritate Miss Flodden. She thought him pharisaical, as she sometimes did, and considered it her duty to give him a setting down with the weight of her superior worldly wisdom.

"Of course I think her natural; only she might be more natural still."

"You mean more wicked?" asked Greenleaf sharply.

"No, not more wicked. The woman in the book may be intended to be wicked; but she needn't have been so in real life. Not at all wicked. She's merely a clever woman who is bored by society, and who wants to know about a lot of things and people. Heaps of women want to know about things because they're bored, but it's not always about nice things and nice people, as in the case of the Princess. She may have done mischief-she shouldn't have played with that wretched little morbid bookbinding boy; women oughtn't to play with men even when they're fools, indeed especially not then. But that wasn't inevitable. Hyacinth would run under her wheels. Of course I shouldn't have cared for that chemist creature either, nor for that Captain Sholto; he behaved rather like a cad all round, don't you think? But after all, they all talked very well; about interesting things-real, important things-didn't they?"

"And you think that to hear people talk about real, important things is a great delight, Miss Flodden?" asked Greenleaf, with a bitterness she did not fully appreciate.

"You would understand it if you had lived for years among people who talked nothing but gossip and rot," she answered sadly, rising from her place.

No more was said that morning about the Princess Casamassima. Miss Flodden was rather silent during their cataloguing work, and Greenleaf felt vaguely sore, he knew not what about.

Throughout the day, there kept returning to his mind those words, "You see they talked very well, about interesting things, important, real things, didn't they?" and the simple, taking-things-for-granted tone in which they had been said. Women of her lot, Miss Flodden had once informed him, would go great lengths for the sake of a new frock or a pair of stepping horses. Was it not possible that some of them, to whom frocks a

nd horses had been offered in too great abundance, might transfer their desire for novelty to interesting talk and real things?

That was their last afternoon together. The catalogue had been finished with. Miss Flodden took Greenleaf for a drive in her cart. They sped along under the rolling clouds of the blustering northern afternoon, the rooks, in black swarms, cawing loudly, and the pee-wits screeching among the stunted hedges and black stones of the green, close-nibbled pastures; it was one of those August days which foretell winter. Greenleaf could never recollect very well what they had talked about, except that it had been about a great variety of things, which the blustering wind had seemed to sweep away like the brown beech leaves in the hollows. The fact was that Greenleaf was not attending. He kept revolving in his mind the same idea, with the impossibility of solving it. He was rather like a man in love, who cannot decide whether or not he is sufficiently so to make a declaration and feels the propitious moment escaping. Greenleaf was not in love; had he been, had there been any chance of his being so, Val Flodden would not have been there in the cart by his side; she had once told him, in one of her fits of abstract communicativeness, that people in love were despicable, but for that reason to be pitied, and that to let them fall in love was to be unkind to them, and to prepare a detestable exhibition for oneself. So Greenleaf was not in love. But he was as excited as if he had been. He felt that a great suspicion had arisen within him; and that this suspicion was about to deprive him of a friendship to which he clung as to a newly-found interest in life.

About Miss Flodden he did not think-that is to say, whether he might be running the risk of depriving her of something. He had not made love to her, so what could he deprive her of? Besides he thought of Miss Flodden exclusively as of the person who was probably going to deprive him of something he wanted. Deprive him if his suspicions should be true. For if his suspicions were true, there was no alternative to giving up all relations with her. He was not a selfish man, trying to save himself heartburns and disenchantments. He was thinking of his opinions, solely. It was quite impossible that they should become the toys of an idle, frivolous woman. Such a thing could not be. The sense of sacrilege was so great that he did not even say to himself that such a thing could not be allowed: to him it took the form of impossibility of its being at all.

Greenleaf was in an agony of doubt; he kept on repeating to himself-"Is she a Princess Casamassima?" so often, that at last he found it quite natural to put the question, so often formulated internally, out loud to her. Of course if she were a Princess Casamassima, her denial would be worth nothing; but when we cannot endure a suspicion against someone, we do not, in our wild desire to have it denied at any price, stop short to reflect that the denial will be worthless. A denial; he wanted a denial, not for the sake of justice towards her, but for his own peace of mind. He was on the very point of putting that strange question to her, when, in the process of a conversation in which he had taken part as in a dream, there suddenly came the unasked-for answer.

They must have been talking of the Princess Casamassima again, and of the uninterestingness of most people's lives. Greenleaf could not remember. It was all muddled in his memory, only there suddenly flashed a sentence, distinct, burning, out of that forgotten confusion.

"It's odd," said Miss Flodden's high, occasionally childish voice; "but I've always found that the people who bored one least were either very clever or very fast."

They were clattering into a little border town, with low black houses on either side, and a square tower, with a red tile extinguisher, and a veering weather-cock, closing the distance and connecting the grey, wet flags below with the grey, billowy sky above.

Greenleaf, although forgetful of all save theories, remembered for a long time that street and that tower. He did not answer, for his heart was overflowing with bitterness.

So it was true; and it just had to be. He had let his belief become the plaything of a capricious child. He had lost his dear friend. It was inevitable.

Greenleaf did not say a word, and showed nothing until his departure. But his letter to Miss Flodden, thanking for the hospitality of Yetholme, was brief, and it contained no allusion to any future meeting, and no promised introduction to the Miss Carpenters. Only at the end was this sentence: "I have lately been re-reading Henry James's 'Princess Casamassima': and I agree with you completely now as to the naturalness of her character."

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