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   Chapter 8 No.8

Vanitas By Vernon Lee Characters: 19695

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Some ten years later found Leonard Greenleaf once more-but this time with only a brougham and a footman to meet him-on his way to stay in a country house. He had been left penniless by his attempts to start co-operative workshops: and overwork and worry had made him far too weak to be a tolerable artisan; so, after having given up his pottery, those long years ago, because it ministered exclusively to rich men's luxury, he had been obliged to swallow the bitterness of perfecting rich men's dwellings in the capacity of Messrs. Boyce & Co.'s chief decorator; and now he was bent upon one of these hated errands.

Time, and the experience of many failures, had indeed perplexed poor Greenleaf's socialistic schemes a little, and had left him doubtful how to hasten the millennium, except by the slow methods of preaching morality and thrift; but time had rather exasperated his hatred of the idleness and selfishness of the privileged classes, to whose luxury he now found himself a minister. And, as he looked out of his window while dressing for dinner (those evening clothes, necessary for such occasions, had become a badge of servitude in his eyes), he felt that old indignation arise with unaccountable strength, and choke him with his own silence. It was a long, low house, the lawn spread, with scarcely any fall, down to the river brink; a wide band of green, then a wide band of shimmering, undecided blue and grey, reflecting the coppery clouds and purple banks of loose-strife, and then beyond and higher up in the picture, flat meadows, whose surface was beginning to be veiled in mist, and whose boundary elms were growing flat and unsubstantial, like painted things. There were birds twittering, and leaves rustling: a great sense of peacefulness, for the family and guests were doubtless within doors busy dressing. Suddenly, there was a plash of oars, and a peal of laughter; and, after a minute, two men and a woman came hurrying up the green lawn, against whose darkening slopes their white clothes made spots of unearthly whiteness in the twilight. They were noisy, and Greenleaf hated their laughter; but suddenly the lady stopped short a moment, and said to her companions in a tone of boredom and irritation: "Oh, shut up; can't you let one look about and listen to things once in a way?"

There was more laughter, and they all disappeared indoors. Greenleaf leaned upon his window, wondering where he had heard that voice before-that voice, or rather one different, but yet very like it.

Downstairs, after a few civil speeches about the pleasure of having the assistance of so great an artistic authority, and sundry contradictory suggestions about styles of furniture and architecture, Greenleaf's host and hostess requested him to join in a little game devised for the removal of precedence in the arrangement of places at table. The game, which had been suggested that very moment by one of the various tall, blond and moustached youths hanging about the drawing-room, consisted in hiding all the men behind a door curtain, whence projected, as sole clue to their identity, their more or less tell-tale feet, by which the ladies were to choose their partners. The feet, so Greenleaf said to himself, were singularly without identity; he saw in his mind's eye the row of projecting, pointed-toed, shining pumps, cut low upon the fantastic assortment of striped, speckled, and otherwise enlivened silk stockings. Among them all there could only be a single pair betraying the nature of their owner, and it was his. They said, or would say, in the mute but expressive language of their square-toedness (Greenleaf felt as if they might have elastic sides even, although his democratic views had always stopped short before that), that their owner was the curate, the tutor, the house-decorator, in fine, the interloper. He wondered whether, as good nature to himself and consideration for the other guests must prompt, those feet would be immediately selected by the mistress of the house, or whether they would be left there unclaimed, when all the others had marched cheerfully off.

But his suspense was quickly converted into another feeling, when among the laughter and exclamations provoked by the performance, a voice came from beyond the curtain, saying slowly: "I think I'll have this pair." The voice was the same he had heard from the lawn, the same he had heard years ago in the British Museum, and on the banks of the Tweed-the same which once or twice since, but at ever-increasing intervals, he had tried in vain to recall to his mind's hearing. The voice-but grown deeper, more deliberate and uniformly weary-of Val Flodden.

Greenleaf heard vaguely the introductory interchange of names performed by his hostess; and felt in his back the well-bred smile of amusement of the couples still behind, as the lady took his unprepared arm and walked him off in the helter-skelter move to the dining-room; and it was as in a dream that he heard his name pronounced, with the added information, on the part of his companion, that it was a long time since they had last met.

"Yes," answered Greenleaf, as the servant gently pushed him and his chair nearer the table; "it must be quite a lot of years ago. I have come here," he added, he scarce knew why-but with a vague sense of protest and self-defence-"about doing up the house."

"Yes, to be sure-it is all going to be overhauled and made beautiful and inappropriate," replied the lady, with a faint intonation of insolence, Greenleaf thought, in her bored voice.

"It is not always easy, is it," rejoined Greenleaf, "to make things appropriate?"

"And beautiful? I suppose not. We aren't any of us very appropriate to a river-bank, with cows lowing and scythes being whetted and all that sort of thing, when one comes to think of it."

"Oh, I do think cows are such interesting creatures-don't you?" put in the charming voice of a charming, charmingly dressed, innocent looking woman opposite, who was evidently the accredited fool of the party. "Sir Robert took us to see a lot of his-all over the dairies, you know-this afternoon, while you were punting."

Another lady, also very charming and charmingly dressed, but neither innocent nor foolish, made some comment on this speech to the man next to her; he said something in his turn, there was a general suppressed laugh, and the innocent looking lady laughed too; but protesting they oughtn't to say such things.

Greenleaf's mind, little accustomed to the charms of innuendoes and slippery allusions, had not followed the intricacies of the conversation. An astonishing girl, beautiful with the beauty of a well-bred horse, sat next to him, and tried to perplex him with sundry questions which she knew he could not follow; but she speedily found there was no rise to be got out of him, and bestowed elsewhere her remarks, racy in more senses than one. So Greenleaf sat silent, looking vaguely at the pools of light beneath the candle-shades, in which the rose petals strewn about, the roses lying loosely, took warm old ivory tints, and the silver-the fantastic confusion of chased salt-cellars and menu-holders and spoons and indescribable objects-flashed blue and lilac on its smooth or chiselled surfaces. From the table the concentrated, shaded light led upwards to the opal necklace of the lady opposite, the blue of the opals changing, with the movement of her head, to green, burning and flickering into fiery sparks; then Greenleaf noticed, sometimes modelled into roundness and sometimes blurred into flatness in the shadow, the black sleeves of the men, the arms of the women, ivory like the rose petals where they advanced beneath the candle-shades; and behind, to the back of the shimmer of the light stuffs and the glare of white shirt-fronts, the big footmen, vague, shadowy, moving about. A man opposite, with babyish eyes and complexion, was telling some story about walking from a punt into the water, which raised the wrath of the girl near Greenleaf; others added further details, which she laughingly tried to deny; there was something about having fastened her garter with a diamond star, and the river having to be dragged for it. Another man, gaunt and languid, said something about not hiding old damask under rose-leaves; but being unnoticed by his hostess, went on about "Parsifal" to his neighbour, the lady interested in cows. There were also allusions to the other Cowes, the place, and to yachting; and a great many to various kinds of sport and to gambling and losing money; indeed, it was marvellous how much money was lost and bankruptcy sustained (technically called getting broke).

The men were mostly more good-looking than not; the women, it seemed to Greenleaf, beautiful enough, each of them, to reward a good month's search. There was a smell, cool and white and acute, of gardenias, from the buttonholes, and a warmer, vaguer one of rose petals; the mixture of black coats and indescribable coloured silk, and of bare arms and necks, the alternations of concentrated light and vague shadow, the occasional glint and glimmer of stones, particularly that warm ivory of roses among the silver, struck Greenleaf, long unaccustomed to even much slighter luxury, as extraordinarily beautiful, like some Tadema picture of Roman orgies. And the more beautiful it seemed to him, with its intentional, elaborate beauty, the more did it make him gnash his teeth with the sense of its wickedness, and force him, for his own conscience' sake, to conjure up other pictures: of grimy, gaslit London streets, and battered crowds round barrows of cheap, half-spoilt food.

The lady who had once been called Val Flodden, and whose name-and he fancied he had heard it before-was now Mrs. Hermann Struw?, addressed him with the necessary politeness, an

d asked him one or two questions about his work and so forth, in a conventional, bored tone. But, although the knowledge that this was his old acquaintance, and the recognition, every now and then, of the fact, put his feelings into a superficial flutter, Greenleaf's mind kept revolving the fact that this woman was really quite a stranger to him; and the apparently somewhat contradictory fact that this was what, after all, he had known she would end in. He noted that among these beautiful and self-satisfied women, with their occasional cleverness and frequent unseemliness of word and allusion, the former Val Flodden was in a way conspicuous, not because she was better looking, but because she was more weary, more reckless, because one somehow expected her to do more, for good or bad, than the others.

"I don't see exactly which of the party could have reported the case," said the woman with the opals, "at least, the crucifix could scarcely have done so … well, well."

There was a great deal of laughter, as the hostess gave the signal for rising; but over it and the rustle and crackle of the ladies' frocks, the voice of Mrs. Hermann Struw? was heard to say in languid, contemptuous tone: "I think your story is a little bit beastly, my dear Algy."

Fortunately for Greenleaf, the men did not stay long at table, as smoking was equally allowed all over the house and in the ladies' presence. For Greenleaf, whose conversation with other men had for years turned only on politics, philosophy, or business, was imbued, much as a woman might have been, with a foregone conviction that as soon as idle men were left to themselves they began to discuss womankind. And there was at the table one man in particular, a long, black, nervous man, with a smiling, jerky mouth, an odd sample of Jewry acclimatised in England, a horrid, half-handsome man, with extraordinarily bland manners and an extraordinarily hard expression, obstinate and mocking, about whom Greenleaf felt that he positively could not sit out any of his conversation on women, and, of course, his conversation would turn on women; partly, perhaps, because the fellow had been introduced as Mr. Hermann Struw?.

Her husband-that was her husband! Greenleaf kept repeating to himself, as he answered as best he could his host's remarks about Elizabethan as against Queen Anne. It was only now when he thought of her in connection with this man that Greenleaf realised that he was really a little upset by this meeting with his old acquaintance. And the thought went on and on, round and round, in his head, when he had followed the first stragglers who went to smoke their cigarettes with the ladies, and answered the interrogations of the ?sthetic man who had talked about old damask and Wagner. The man in question, delighted to lay hold of so great an authority as Greenleaf, had also noticed that Greenleaf had known Mrs. Hermann Struw? at some former period. He had evidently been snubbed a little by the lady, and partly from a desire to hear her artistic capacities pooh-poohed by a professional (since every amateur imagines himself the only tolerable one), and partly from a natural taste for knowing what did not concern him, he had set very artfully to pump poor Greenleaf, who, at best, was no match for a wily man of the world.

"Miss Flodden had a good deal of talent-quite a remarkable talent-as a draughtsman, had she only studied seriously," he answered emphatically, seeing only that the fellow wished for some quotable piece of running down. "It is, in fact, a pity"-but he stopped. He was really not thinking of that. The long drawing-room opened with all its windows on to the lawn, and you could see, at the bottom of that, the outlines of trees and boats in the moonlight, and Chinese lanterns hanging about the flotilla of moored punts and canoes and skiffs, to which some of the party had gone down, revealing themselves with occasional splashings, thrummings on the banjo, and little cries and peals of laughter. Nearer the house a couple was walking up and down on the grass, the light of the drawing-room lamps catching their faces with an odd, yellow glow every now and then, and making the woman's white frock shimmer like silver against the branches of the big cedars. "It appears Lady Lilly told her mother she was going to try on a frock, but somehow on the way there she met Morton's coach, so she thought she'd get on to it and have some change of air and she changed the air so often that by the evening she had contrived to win sixty pounds at Sandown," said one of the promenading couples, pausing in the stream of light from the window. "Oh, bless your soul, she doesn't mind it's being told; she thinks it an awful joke, and so it was."

That man-that Val Flodden should have married that man-Greenleaf kept repeating to himself, and the recollection of her words about never getting married, about a world where there would be no diamonds and no stepping horses, and also, as she expressed it, no marrying and giving in marriage, filled Greenleaf's mind as with some bitter, heady dram. And he had thought of her as a sort of unapproachable proud amazon, or Diana of Hippolytus, incapable of any feeling save indignation against injustice and pity for weak and gentle things. Oh Lord, oh Lord! It was horrible, horrible, and at the same time laughable. And just that man, too-that narrow, obstinate looking creature with the brain and the heart (Greenleaf knew it for a certainty) of a barn-door cock! And yet, was he any worse than the others, the others who, perhaps, had a little more brains and a little more heart, and who all the same lived only to waste the work of the poor, to make debts, to gamble, to ruin women, and to fill the world with filthy talk and disbelief in better things? Was he worse than all the other manly, well-mannered, accomplished, futile, or mischievous creatures? Was he worse than she?

"Ah, well, of course; you have known her so much more than I have," said the ?sthetic man, puffing at his cigarette, opposite to Greenleaf. "But now, I should have thought there would have always been something lacking in anything that woman would do. A certain-I don't know what to call it-but, in short, proper mental balance and steadiness. I consider, that for real artistic quality, it is necessary that one should possess some sort of seriousness, of consistency of character-of course you know her so much better, Mr. Greenleaf-but now I can't understand a really artistic woman-after refusing half a dozen other fellows who were at least gentlemen, suddenly choosing a tubbed Jew like that-and apparently not seeing that he is only a tubbed Jew," the ?sthetic man stopped, disappointed in not getting a rise from Greenleaf, but Greenleaf was scarcely listening.

A man had sat down to the piano and was singing, on the whole, rather well. Some of the people were standing by him, others were in little groups, men and women nearly all smoking equally, scattered about the big white room with the delicate blue china, and the big stacks of pale pink begonias. Mrs. Hermann Struw? was standing near the piano, leaning against the long, open window, the principal figure in a group of two other women and a man. In her fanciful, straight-hanging dress of misty-coloured crape, her hair, elaborately and tightly dressed, making her small head even smaller, and her strong, slender neck, with the black pearls around it, drawn up like a peacock's, she struck Greenleaf as much more beautiful than before, and even much taller; but there had been a gentleness, a something timid and winning, in her former occasional little stoop, which was now quite gone. She looked young, but young in quite another way; she was now very thin, and her cheeks were hollowed very perceptibly.

The bland, blurred man at the piano was singing with all his might, and with considerable voice and skill; but the music, of his own composition, was indecorously passionate as he sang it, at least taken in connection with the words, culled from some decadent French poet, and which few people would have deliberately read out aloud. The innocent lady who had talked about cows even made some faint objection, to which the singer answered much surprised, by blandly pointing out the passionate charm of the words, and assuring her that she did not know what real feeling was. And when he had finished that song, and begun another, one of the two other women actually moved away, while the other buried her head in a volume of Punch; there was a little murmur, "Well, I think he is going a little too far." But Mrs. Hermann Struw? never moved.

"I can't make out that woman," remarked Greenleaf's new acquaintance, the ?sthetic man; "she's usually by ways of being prudish, and has a way of shutting up poor Chatty when he gets into this strain. Only yesterday, she told him his song was beastly, and it wasn't half as bad as this one. I expect she's doing it from cussedness, because her husband was bored at her being too particular yesterday; because, of course, he'll be bored by her not being particular enough to-day."

Greenleaf walked up to a picture, and thence slunk off to the door. As he was leaving the room, he looked back at the former Miss Flodden: she was still standing near the piano, listening composedly, but he thought that her thin face bore an expression of defiance.

He was so excited that he opened his room door too quickly to give effect to a practical joke, consisting of a can of water balancing on its angle as it stood ajar, and intended to tumble on his head while he was passing in; a delicate jest which the girl who had sat next to him-she of the punt, diamond garter and coach adventures-occasionally practised on the new inmates of what she technically called "houses."

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