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

Chapter 18

The Authoress

The effect of a great success upon Diana, at her second literary venture, was shown in the transparent sedateness of a letter she wrote to Emma Dunstane, as much as in her immediate and complacent acceptance of the magical change of her fortunes. She spoke one thing and acted another, but did both with a lofty calm that deceived the admiring friend who clearly saw the authoress behind her mask, and feared lest she should be too confidently trusting to the powers of her pen to support an establishment.

‘If the public were a perfect instrument to strike on, I should be tempted to take the wonderful success of my PRINCESS at her first appearance for a proof of natural aptitude in composition, and might think myself the genius. I know it to be as little a Stradivarius as I am a Paganini. It is an eccentric machine, in tune with me for the moment, because I happen to have hit it in the ringing spot. The book is a new face appealing to a mirror of the common surface emotions; and the kitchen rather than the dairy offers an analogy for the real value of that “top-skim.” I have not seen what I consider good in the book once mentioned among the laudatory notices — except by your dear hand, my Emmy. Be sure I will stand on guard against the “vaporous generalizations,” and other “tricks” you fear. Now that you are studying Latin for an occupation — how good and wise it was of Mr. Redworth to propose it! — I look upon you with awe as a classic authority and critic. I wish I had leisure to study with you. What I do is nothing like so solid and durable.

‘THE PRINCESS EGERIA’ originally (I must have written word of it to you — I remember the evening off Palermo!) was conceived as a sketch; by gradations she grew into a sort of semi-Scudery romance, and swelled to her present portliness. That was done by a great deal of piecing, not to say puffing, of her frame. She would be healthier and have a chance of living longer if she were reduced by a reversal of the processes. But how would the judicious clippings and prickings affect our “pensive public”? Now that I have furnished a house and have a fixed address, under the paws of creditors, I feel I am in the wizard-circle of my popularity and subscribe to its laws or waken to incubus and the desert. Have I been rash? You do not pronounce. If I have bound myself to pipe as others please, it need not be entirely; and I can promise you it shall not be; but still I am sensible when I lift my “little quill” of having forced the note of a woodland wren into the popular nightingale’s — which may end in the daw’s, from straining; or worse, a toy-whistle.

‘That is, in the field of literature. Otherwise, within me deep, I am not aware of any transmutation of the celestial into coined gold. I sound myself, and ring clear. Incessant writing is my refuge, my solace — escape out of the personal net. I delight in it, as in my early morning walks at Lugano, when I went threading the streets and by the lake away to “the heavenly mount,” like a dim idea worming upward in a sleepy head to bright wakefulness.

‘My anonymous critic, of whom I told you, is intoxicating with eulogy. The signature “Apollonius” appears to be of literary-middle indication. He marks passages approved by you. I have also had a complimentary letter from Mr. Dacier:

‘For an instance of this delight I have in writing, so strong is it that I can read pages I have written, and tear the stuff to strips (I did yesterday), and resume, as if nothing had happened. The waves within are ready for any displacement. That must be a good sign. I do not doubt of excelling my PRINCESS; and if she received compliments, the next may hope for more. Consider, too, the novel pleasure of earning money by the labour we delight in. It is an answer to your question whether I am happy. Yes, as the savage islander before the ship entered the bay with the fire-water. My blood is wine, and I have the slumbers of an infant. I dream, wake, forget my dream, barely dress before the pen is galloping; barely breakfast; no toilette till noon. A savage in good sooth! You see, my Emmy, I could not house with the “companionable person” you hint at. The poles can never come together till the earth is crushed. She would find my habits intolerable, and I hers contemptible, though we might both be companionable persons. My dear, I could not even live with myself. My blessed little quill, which helps me divinely to live out of myself, is and must continue to be my one companion. It is my mountain height, morning light, wings, cup from the springs, my horse, my goal, my lancet and replenisher, my key of communication with the highest, grandest, holiest between earth and heaven-the vital air connecting them.

‘In justice let me add that I have not been troubled by hearing of any of the mysterious legal claims, et caetera. I am sorry to hear bad reports of health. I wish him entire felicity — no step taken to bridge division! The thought of it makes me tigrish.

‘A new pianist playing his own pieces (at Lady Singleby’s concert) has given me exquisite pleasure’ and set me composing songs — not to his music, which could be rendered only by sylphs moving to “soft recorders” in the humour of wildness, languor, bewitching caprices, giving a new sense to melody. How I wish you had been with me to hear him! It was the most AEolian thing ever caught from a night-breeze by the soul of a poet.

‘But do not suppose me having headlong tendencies to the melting mood. (The above, by the way, is a Pole settled in Paris, and he is to be introduced to me at Lady Pennon’s.)— What do you say to my being invited by Mr. Whitmonby to aid him in writing leading articles for the paper he is going to conduct! “write as you talk and it will do,” he says. I am choosing my themes. To write — of politics — as I talk, seems to me like an effort to jump away from my shadow. The black dog of consciousness declines to be shaken off. If some one commanded me to talk as I write! I suspect it would be a way of winding me up to a sharp critical pitch rapidly.

‘Not good news of Lord D. I have had messages. Mr. Dacier conceals his alarm. The PRINCESS gave great gratification. She did me her best service there. Is it not cruel that the interdict of the censor should force me to depend for information upon such scraps as I get from a gentleman passing my habitation on his way to the House? And he is not, he never has been, sympathetic in that direction. He sees my grief, and assumes an undertakerly air, with some notion of acting in concert, one supposes little imagining how I revolt from that crape-hatband formalism of sorrow!

‘One word of her we call our inner I. I am not drawing upon her resources for my daily needs; not wasting her at all, I trust; certainly not walling her up, to deafen her voice. It would be to fall away from you. She bids me sign myself, my beloved, ever, ever your Tony.’

The letter had every outward show of sincereness in expression, and was endowed to wear that appearance by the writer’s impulse to protest with so resolute a vigour as to delude herself. Lady Dunstane heard of Mr. Dacier’s novel attendance at concerts. The world made a note of it; for the gentleman was notoriously without ear for music.

Diana’s comparison of her hours of incessant writing to her walks under the dawn at Lugano, her boast of the similarity of her delight in both, deluded her uncorrupted conscience to believe that she was now spiritually as free: as in that fair season of the new spring in her veins. She, was not an investigating physician, nor was Lady Dunstane, otherwise they would have examined the material points of her conduct — indicators of the spiritual secret always. What are the patient’s acts? The patient’s, mind was projected too far beyond them to see the fore finger they stretched at her; and the friend’s was not that of a prying doctor on the look out for betraying symptoms. Lady Dunstane did ask herself why Tony should have incurred the burden of a costly household — a very costly: Sir Lukin had been at one of Tony’s little’ dinners: but her wish to meet the world on equal terms, after a long dependency, accounted for it in seeming to excuse. The guests on the occasion were Lady Pennon. Lady Singleby, Mr. Whitmonby, Mr. Percy Dacier, Mr. Tonans; —‘Some other woman,’ Sir Lukin said, and himself. He reported the cookery as matching the conversation, and that was princely; the wines not less — an extraordinary fact to note of a woman. But to hear Whitmonby and Diana Warwick! How he told a story, neat as a postman’s knock, and she tipped it with a remark and ran to a second, drawing in Lady Pennon, and then Dacier, ‘and me!’ cried Sir Lukin; ‘she made us all toss the ball from hand to hand, and all talk up to the mark; and none of us noticed that we all went together to the drawing-room, where we talked for another hour, and broke up fresher than we began.’

‘That break between the men and the women after dinner was Tony’s aversion, and I am glad she has instituted a change,’ said Lady Dunstane.

She heard also from Redworth of the unexampled concert of the guests at Mrs. Warwick’s dinner parties. He had met on one occasion the Esquarts, the Pettigrews, Mr. Percy Dacier, and a Miss Paynham. Redworth had not a word to say of the expensive household. Whatever Mrs. Warwick did was evidently good to him. On another evening the party was composed of Lady Pennon, Lord Larrian, Miss Paynham, a clever Mrs. Wollasley, Mr. Henry Wilmers, and again Mr. Percy Dacier.

When Diana came to Copsley, Lady Dunstane remarked on the recurrence of the name of Miss Paynham in the list of her guests.

‘And Mr. Percy Dacier’s too,’ said Diana, smiling. ‘They are invited each for specific reasons. It pleases Lord Dannisburgh to hear that a way has been found to enliven his nephew; and my little dinners are effective, I think. He wakes. Yesterday evening he capped flying jests with Mr. Sullivan Smith. But you speak of Miss. Paynham.’ Diana lowered her voice on half a dozen syllables, till the half-tones dropped into her steady look. ‘You approve, Emmy?’

The answer was: ‘I do — true or not.’

‘Between us two, dear, I fear! . . . In either case, she has been badly used. Society is big engine enough to protect itself. I incline with British juries to do rough justice to the victims. She has neither father nor brother. I have had no confidences: but it wears the look of a cowardly business. With two words in his ear, I could arm an Irishman to do some work of chastisement: he would select the rascal’s necktie for a cause of quarrel and lords have to stand their ground as well as commoners. They measure the same number of feet when stretched their length. However, vengeance with the heavens! though they seem tardy. Lady Pennon has been very kind about it; and the Esquarts invite her to Lockton. Shoulder to shoulder, the tide may be stemmed.’

‘She would have gone under, but for you, dear Tony!’ said Emma’ folding arms round her darling’s neck anal kissing her. ‘Bring her here some day.’

Diana did not promise it. She had her vision of Sir Lukin in his fit of lunacy.

‘I am too weak for London now,’ Emma resumed. ‘I should like to be useful. Is she pleasant?’

‘Sprightly by nature. She has worn herself with fretting.’

‘Then bring her to stay with me, if I cannot keep you. She will talk of you to me.’

‘I will bring her for a couple of days,’ Diana said. ‘I am too busy to remain longer. She paints portraits to amuse herself. She ought to be pushed, wherever she is received about London, while the season is warm. One season will suffice to establish her. She is pretty, near upon six and twenty: foolish, of course:— she pays for having had a romantic head. Heavy payment, Emmy! I drive at laws, but hers is an instance of the creatures wanting simple human kindness.’

‘The good law will come with a better civilization; but before society can be civilized it has to be debarbarized,’ Emma remarked, and Diana sighed over the task and the truism.

I should have said in younger days, because it will not look plainly on our nature and try to reconcile it with our conditions. But now I see that the sin is cowardice. The more I know of the world the more clearly I perceive that its top and bottom sin is cowardice, physically and morally alike. Lord Larrian owns to there being few heroes in an army. We must fawn in society. What is the meaning of that dread of one example of tolerance? O my dear! let us give it the right name. Society is the best thing we have, but it is a crazy vessel worked by a crew that formerly practised piracy, and now, in expiation, professes piety, fearful of a discovered Omnipotence, which is in the image of themselves and captain. Their old habits are not quite abandoned, and their new one is used as a lash to whip the exposed of us for a propitiation of the capricious potentate whom they worship in the place of the true God.’

Lady Dunstane sniffed. ‘I smell the leading article.’

Diana joined with her smile, ‘No, the style is rather different.’

‘Have you not got into a trick of composing in speaking, at times?’

Diana confessed, ‘I think I have at times. Perhaps the daily writing of all kinds and the nightly talking . . . I may be getting strained.’

‘No, Tony; but longer visits in the country to me would refresh you. I miss your lighter touches. London is a school, but, you know it, not a school for comedy nor for philosophy; that is gathered on my hills, with London distantly in view, and then occasional descents on it well digested.’

‘I wonder whether it is affecting me!’ said Diana, musing. ‘A metropolitan hack! and while thinking myself free, thrice harnessed; and all my fun gone. Am I really as dull as a tract, my dear? I must be, or I should be proving the contrary instead of asking. My pitfall is to fancy I have powers equal to the first look-out of the eyes of the morning. Enough of me. We talked of Mary Paynham. If only some right good man would marry her!’

Lady Dunstane guessed at the right good man in Diana’s mind. ‘Do you bring them together?’

Diana nodded, and then shook doleful negatives to signify no hope.

‘None whatever — if we mean the same person,’ said Lady Dunstane, bethinking her, in the spirit of wrath she felt at such a scheme being planned by Diana to snare the right good man, that instead of her own true lover Redworth, it might be only Percy Dacier. So filmy of mere sensations are these little ideas as they flit in converse, that she did not reflect on her friend’s ignorance of Redworth’s love of her, or on the unlikely choice of one in Dacier’s high station to reinstate a damsel.

They did not name the person.

‘Passing the instance, which is cruel, I will be just to society thus far,’ said Diana. ‘I was in a boat at Richmond last week, and Leander was revelling along the mud-banks, and took it into his head to swim out to me, and I was moved to take him on board. The ladies in the boat objected, for he was not only wet but very muddy. I was forced to own that their objections were reasonable. My sentimental humaneness had no argument against muslin dresses, though my dear dog’s eyes appealed pathetically, and he would keep swimming after us. The analogy excuses the world for protecting itself in extreme cases; nothing, nothing excuses its insensibility to cases which may be pleaded. You see the pirate crew turned pious-ferocious in sanctity.’ She added, half laughing: ‘I am reminded by the boat, I have unveiled my anonymous critic, and had a woeful disappointment. He wrote like a veteran; he is not much more than a boy. I received a volume of verse, and a few lines begging my acceptance. I fancied I knew the writing, and wrote asking him whether I had not to thank him, and inviting him to call. He seems a nice lad of about two and twenty, mad for literature; and he must have talent. Arthur Rhodes by name. I may have a chance of helping him. He was an articled clerk of Mr. Braddock’s, the same who valiantly came to my rescue once. He was with us in the boat.’

‘Bring him to me some day,’ said Lady Dunstane.

Miss Paynham’s visit to Copsley was arranged, and it turned out a failure. The poor young lady came in a flutter, thinking that the friend of Mrs. Warwick would expect her to discourse cleverly. She attempted it, to Diana’s amazement. Lady Dunstane’s opposingly corresponding stillness provoked Miss Paynham to expatiate, for she had sprightliness and some mental reserves of the common order. Clearly, Lady Dunstane mused while listening amiably, Tony never could have designed this gabbler for the mate of Thomas Redworth!

Percy Dacier seemed to her the more likely one, in that light, and she thought so still, after Sir Lukin had introduced him at Copsley for a couple of days of the hunting season. Tony’s manner with him suggested it; she had a dash of leadership. They were not intimate in look or tongue.

But Percy Dacier also was too good for Miss Paynham, if that was Tony’s plan for him, Lady Dunstane thought, with the relentlessness of an invalid and recluse’s distaste. An aspect of penitence she had not demanded, but the silly gabbier under a stigma she could not pardon.

Her opinion of Miss Paynham was diffused in her silence.

Speaking of Mr. Dacier, she remarked, ‘As you say of him, Tony, he can brighten, and when you give him a chance he is entertaining. He has fine gifts. If I were a member of his family I should beat about for a match for him. He strikes me as one of the young men who would do better married.’

‘He is doing very well, but the wonder is that he doesn’t marry,’ said Diana. ‘He ought to be engaged. Lady Esquart told me that he was. A Miss Asper — great heiress; and the Daciers want money. However, there it is.’

Not many weeks later Diana could not have spoken of Mr. Percy Dacier with this air of indifference without corruption of her inward guide.

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