Diana of the Crossways, by Meredith, George, 1828-1909

Chapter 12

Between Emma and Diana

Diana was in the arms of her friend at a late hour of the evening, and Danvers breathed the amiable atmosphere of footmen once more, professing herself perished. This maid of the world, who could endure hardships and loss of society for the mistress to whom she was attached, no sooner saw herself surrounded by the comforts befitting her station, than she indulged in the luxury of a wailful dejectedness, the better to appreciate them. She was unaffectedly astonished to find her outcries against the cold and the journeyings to and fro interpreted as a serving-woman’s muffled comments on her mistress’s behaviour. Lady Dunstane’s maid Bartlett, and Mrs. Bridges the housekeeper, and Foster the butler, contrived to let her know that they could speak an if they would; and they expressed their pity of her to assist her to begin the speaking. She bowed in acceptance of Fosters offer of a glass of wine after supper, but treated him and the other two immediately as though they had been interrogating bigwigs.

‘They wormed nothing out of me,’ she said to her mistress at night, undressing her. ‘But what a set they are! They’ve got such comfortable places, they’ve all their days and hours for talk of the doings of their superiors. They read the vilest of those town papers, and they put their two and two together of what is happening in and about. And not one of the footmen thinks of staying, because it ‘s so dull; and they and the maids object — did one ever hear? — to the three uppers retiring, when they’ve done dining, to the private room to dessert.’

‘That is the custom?’ observed her mistress.

‘Foster carries the decanter, ma’am, and Mrs. Bridges the biscuits, and Bartlett the plate of fruit, and they march out in order.’

‘The man at the head of the procession, probably.’

‘Oh yes. And the others, though they have everything except the wine and dessert, don’t like it. When I was here last they were new, and hadn’t a word against it. Now they say it’s invidious! Lady Dunstane will be left without an under-servant at Copsley soon. I was asked about your boxes, ma’am, and the moment I said they were at Dover, that instant all three peeped. They let out a mouse to me. They do love to talk!’

Her mistress could have added, ‘And you too, my good Danvers!’ trustworthy though she knew the creature to be in the main.

‘Now go, and be sure you have bedclothes enough before you drop asleep,’ she said; and Danvers directed her steps to gossip with Bartlett.

Diana wrapped herself in a dressing-gown Lady Dunstane had sent her, and sat by the fire, thinking of the powder of tattle stored in servants’ halls to explode beneath her: and but for her choice of roads she might have been among strangers. The liking of strangers best is a curious exemplification of innocence.

‘Yes, I was in a muse,’ she said, raising her head to Emma, whom she expected and sat armed to meet, unaccountably iron-nerved. ‘I was questioning whether I could be quite as blameless as I fancy, if I sit and shiver to be in England. You will tell me I have taken the right road. I doubt it. But the road is taken, and here I am. But any road that leads me to you is homeward, my darling!’ She tried to melt, determining to be at least open with her.

‘I have not praised you enough for coming,’ said Emma, when they had embraced again.

‘Praise a little your “truest friend of women.” Your letter gave the tug. I might have resisted it.’

‘He came straight from heaven! But, cruel Tony where is your love?’

‘It is unequal to yours, dear, I see. I could have wrestled with anything abstract and distant, from being certain. But here I am.’

‘But, my own dear girl, you never could have allowed this infamous charge to be undefended?’

‘I think so. I’ve an odd apathy as to my character; rather like death, when one dreams of flying the soul. What does it matter? I should have left the flies and wasps to worry a corpse. And then-good-bye gentility! I should have worked for my bread. I had thoughts of America. I fancy I can write; and Americans, one hears, are gentle to women.’

‘Ah, Tony! there’s the looking back. And, of all women, you!’

‘Or else, dear-well, perhaps once on foreign soil, in a different air, I might — might have looked back, and seen my whole self, not shattered, as I feel it now, and come home again compassionate to the poor persecuted animal to defend her. Perhaps that was what I was running away for. I fled on the instinct, often a good thing to trust.’

‘I saw you at The Crossways.’

‘I remembered I had the dread that you would, though I did not imagine you would reach me so swiftly. My going there was an instinct, too. I suppose we are all instinct when we have the world at our heels. Forgive me if I generalize without any longer the right to be included in the common human sum. “Pariah” and “taboo” are words we borrow from barbarous tribes; they stick to me.’

‘My Tony, you look as bright as ever, and you speak despairingly.’

‘Call me enigma. I am that to myself, Emmy.’

‘You are not quite yourself to your friend.’

‘Since the blow I have been bewildered; I see nothing upright. It came on me suddenly; stunned me. A bolt out of a clear sky, as they say. He spared me a scene: There had been threats, and yet the sky was clear, or seemed. When we have a man for arbiter, he is our sky.’

Emma pressed her Tony’s unresponsive hand, feeling strangely that her friend ebbed from her.

‘Has he . . . to mislead him?’ she said, colouring at the breach in the question.

‘Proofs? He has the proofs he supposes.’

‘Not to justify suspicion?’

‘He broke open my desk and took my letters.’

‘Horrible! But the letters?’ Emma shook with a nervous revulsion.

‘You might read them.’

‘Basest of men! That is the unpardonable cowardice!’, exclaimed Emma.

‘The world will read them, dear,’ said Diana, and struck herself to ice. She broke from the bitter frigidity in fury. ‘They are letters — none very long — sometimes two short sentences — he wrote at any spare moment. On my honour, as a woman, I feel for him most. The letters — I would bear any accusation rather than that exposure. Letters of a man of his age to a young woman he rates too highly!

The world reads them. Do you hear it saying it could have excused her for that fiddle-faddle with a younger — a young lover? And had I thought of a lover! . . . I had no thought of loving or being loved. I confess I was flattered. To you, Emma, I will confess. . . . You see the public ridicule! — and half his age, he and I would have appeared a romantic couple! Confess, I said. Well, dear, the stake is lighted for a trial of its effect on me. It is this: he was never a dishonourable friend; but men appear to be capable of friendship with women only for as long as we keep out of pulling distance of that line where friendship ceases. They may step on it; we must hold back a league. I have learnt it. You will judge whether he disrespects me. As for him, he is a man; at his worst, not one of the worst; at his best, better than very many. There, now, Emma, you have me stripped and burning; there is my full confession. Except for this — yes, one thing further — that I do rage at the ridicule, and could choose, but for you, to have given the world cause to revile me, or think me romantic. Something or somebody to suffer for would really be agreeable. It is a singular fact, I have not known what this love is, that they talk about. And behold me marched into Smithfield! — society’s heretic, if you please. I must own I think it hard.’

Emma chafed her cold hand softly.

‘It is hard; I understand it,’ she murmured. ‘And is your Sunday visit to us in the list of offences?’

‘An item.’

‘You gave me a happy day.’

‘Then it counts for me in heaven.’

‘He set spies on you?’

‘So we may presume.’

Emma went through a sphere of tenuious reflections in a flash.

‘He will rue it. Perhaps now . . . he may now be regretting his wretched frenzy. And Tony could pardon; she has the power of pardoning in her heart.’

‘Oh! certainly, dear. But tell me why it is you speak to-night rather unlike the sedate, philosophical Emma; in a tone-well, tolerably sentimental?’

‘I am unaware of it,’ said Emma, who could have retorted with a like reproach. ‘I am anxious, I will not say at present for your happiness, for your peace; and I have a hope that possibly a timely word from some friend — Lukin or another — might induce him to consider.’

‘To pardon me, do you mean?’ cried Diana, flushing sternly.

‘Not pardon. Suppose a case of faults on both sides.’

‘You address a faulty person, my dear. But do you know that you are hinting at a reconcilement?’

‘Might it not be?’

‘Open your eyes to what it involves. I trust I can pardon. Let him go his ways, do his darkest, or repent. But return to the roof of the “basest of men,” who was guilty of “the unpardonable cowardice”? You expect me to be superhuman. When I consent to that, I shall be out of my woman’s skin, which he has branded. Go back to him!’ She was taken with a shudder of head and limbs. ‘No; I really have the power of pardoning, and I am bound to; for among my debts to him, this present exemption, that is like liberty dragging a chain, or, say, an escaped felon wearing his manacles, should count. I am sensible of my obligation. The price I pay for it is an immovable patch-attractive to male idiots, I have heard, and a mark of scorn to females. Between the two the remainder of my days will be lively. “Out, out, damned spot!” But it will not. And not on the hand — on the forehead! We’ll talk of it no longer. I have sent a note, with an enclosure, to my lawyers. I sell The Crossways, if I have the married woman’s right to any scrap of property, for money to scatter fees.’

‘My purse, dear Tony!’ exclaimed Emma. ‘My house! You will stay with me? Why do you shake your head? With me you are safe.’ She spied at the shadows in her friend’s face. ‘Ever since your marriage, Tony, you have been strange in your trick of refusing to stay with me. And you and I made our friendship the pledge of a belief in eternity! We vowed it. Come, I do talk sentimentally, but my heart is in it. I beg you — all the reasons are with me — to make my house your home. You will. You know I am rather lonely.’

Diana struggled to keep her resolution from being broken by tenderness. And doubtless poor Sir Lukin had learnt his lesson; still, her defensive instincts could never quite slumber under his roof; not because of any further fear that they would have to be summoned; it was chiefly owing to the consequences of his treacherous foolishness. For this half-home with her friend thenceforward denied to her, she had accepted a protector, called husband — rashly, past credence, in the retrospect; but it had been her propelling motive; and the loathings roused by her marriage helped to sicken her at the idea of a lengthened stay where she had suffered the shock precipitating her to an act of insanity.

‘I do not forget you were an heiress, Emmy, and I will come to you if I need money to keep my head up. As for staying, two reasons are against it. If I am to fight my battle, I must be seen; I must go about — wherever I am received. So my field is London. That is obvious. And I shall rest better in a house where my story is not known.’

Two or three questions ensued. Diana had to fortify her fictitious objection by alluding to her maid’s prattle of the household below; and she excused the hapless, overfed, idle people of those regions.

To Emma it seemed a not unnatural sensitiveness. She came to a settled resolve in her thoughts, as she said, ‘They want a change. London is their element.’

Feeling that she deceived this true heart, however lightly and necessarily, Diana warmed to her, forgiving her at last for having netted and dragged her back to front the enemy; an imposition of horrors, of which the scene and the travelling with Redworth, the talking of her case with her most intimate friend as well, had been a distempering foretaste.

They stood up and kissed, parting for the night.

An odd world, where for the sin we have not participated in we must fib and continue fibbing, she reflected. She did not entirely cheat her clearer mind, for she perceived that her step in flight had been urged both by a weak despondency and a blind desperation; also that the world of a fluid civilization is perforce artificial. But her mind was in the background of her fevered senses, and when she looked in the glass and mused on uttering the word, ‘Liar!’ to the lovely image, her senses were refreshed, her mind somewhat relieved, the face appeared so sovereignly defiant of abasement.

Thus did a nature distraught by pain obtain some short lull of repose. Thus, moreover, by closely reading herself, whom she scourged to excess that she might in justice be comforted, she gathered an increasing knowledge of our human constitution, and stored matter for the brain.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11