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

Chapter 2

An Irish Ball.

In the Assembly Rooms of the capital city of the Sister Island there was a public Ball, to celebrate the return to Erin of a British hero of Irish blood, after his victorious Indian campaign; a mighty struggle splendidly ended; and truly could it be said that all Erin danced to meet him; but this was the pick of the dancing, past dispute the pick of the supping. Outside those halls the supping was done in Lazarus fashion, mainly through an excessive straining of the organs of hearing and vision, which imparted the readiness for more, declared by physicians to be the state inducing to sound digestion. Some one spied the figure of the hero at the window and was fed; some only to hear the tale chewed the cud of it; some told of having seen him mount the steps; and sure it was that at an hour of the night, no matter when, and never mind a drop or two of cloud, he would come down them again, and have an Irish cheer to freshen his pillow. For ’tis Ireland gives England her soldiers, her generals too. Farther away, over field and bogland, the whiskies did their excellent ancient service of watering the dry and drying the damp, to the toast of ‘Lord Larrian, God bless him! he’s an honour to the old country!’ and a bit of a sigh to follow, hints of a story, and loud laughter, a drink, a deeper sigh, settling into conversation upon the brave Lord Larrian’s deeds, and an Irish regiment he favoured — had no taste for the enemy without the backing of his ‘boys.’ Not he. Why, he’d never march to battle and they not handy; because when he struck he struck hard, he said. And he has a wound on the right hip and two fingers off his left hand; has bled for England, to show her what Irishmen are when they’re well treated.

The fine old warrior standing at the upper end of the long saloon, tall, straight, grey-haired, martial in his aspect and decorations, was worthy to be the flag-pole for enthusiasm. His large grey eyes lightened from time to time as he ranged them over the floating couples, and dropped a word of inquiry to his aide, Captain Sir Lukin Dunstane, a good model of a cavalry officer, though somewhat a giant, equally happy with his chief in passing the troops of animated ladies under review. He named as many as were known to him. Reviewing women exquisitely attired for inspection, all variously and charmingly smiling, is a relief after the monotonous regiments of men. Ireland had done her best to present the hero of her blood an agreeable change; and he too expressed a patriotic satisfaction on hearing that the faces most admired by him were of the native isle. He looked upon one that came whirling up to him on a young officer’s arm and swept off into the crowd of tops, for a considerable while before he put his customary question. She was returning on the spin when he said,

‘Who is she?’

Sir Lukin did not know. ‘She ‘s a new bird; she nodded to my wife; I’ll ask.’

He manoeuvred a few steps cleverly to where his wife reposed. The information he gathered for the behoof of his chief was, that the handsome creature answered to the name of Miss Merion; Irish; aged somewhere between eighteen and nineteen; a dear friend of his wife’s, and he ought to have remembered her; but she was a child when he saw her last.

‘Dan Merion died, I remember, about the day of my sailing for India,’ said the General. ‘She may be his daughter.’

The bright cynosure rounded up to him in the web of the waltz, with her dark eyes for Lady Dunstane, and vanished again among the twisting columns.

He made his way, handsomely bumped by an apologetic pair, to Lady Dunstane, beside whom a seat was vacated for him; and he trusted she had not over-fatigued herself.

‘Confess,’ she replied, ‘you are perishing to know more than Lukin has been able to tell you. Let me hear that you admire her: it pleases me; and you shall hear what will please you as much, I promise you, General.’

‘I do. Who wouldn’t?’ said he frankly.

‘She crossed the Channel expressly to dance here tonight at the public Ball in honour of you.’

‘Where she appears, the first person falls to second rank, and accepts it humbly.’

‘That is grandly spoken.’

‘She makes everything in the room dust round a blazing jewel.’

‘She makes a poet of a soldier. Well, that you may understand how pleased I am, she is my dearest friend, though she is younger than I, as may be seen; she is the only friend I have. I nursed her when she was an infant; my father and Mr. Dan Merion were chums. We were parted by my marriage and the voyage to India. We have not yet exchanged a syllable: she was snapped up, of course, the moment she entered the room. I knew she would be a taking girl: how lovely, I did not guess. You are right, she extinguishes the others. She used to be the sprightliest of living creatures, and to judge by her letters, that has not faded. She ‘s in the market, General.’

Lord Larrian nodded to everything he heard, concluding with a mock doleful shake of the head. ‘My poorest subaltern!’ he sighed, in the theatrical but cordially melancholy style of green age viewing Cytherea’s market.

His poorest subaltern was richer than he in the wherewithal to bid for such prizes.

‘What is her name in addition to Merion?’

‘Diana Antonia Merion. Tony to me, Diana to the world.’

‘She lives over there?’

‘In England, or anywhere; wherever she is taken in. She will live, I hope, chiefly with me.’

‘And honest Irish?’

‘Oh, she’s Irish.’

‘Ah!’ the General was Irish to the heels that night.

Before further could be said the fair object of the dialogue came darting on a trip of little runs, both hands out, all her face one tender sparkle of a smile; and her cry proved the quality of her blood: ‘Emmy! Emmy! my heart!’

‘My dear Tony!

I should not have come but for the hope of seeing you here.’

Lord Larrian rose and received a hurried acknowledgement of his courtesy from the usurper of his place.

‘Emmy! we might kiss and hug; we’re in Ireland. I burn to! But you’re not still ill, dear? Say no! That Indian fever must have gone. You do look a dash pale, my own; you’re tired.’

‘One dance has tired me. Why were you so late?’

‘To give the others a chance? To produce a greater impression by suspense? No and no. I wrote you I was with the Pettigrews. We caught the coach, we caught the boat, we were only two hours late for the Ball; so we did wonders. And good Mrs. Pettigrew is, pining somewhere to complete her adornment. I was in the crush, spying for Emmy, when Mr. Mayor informed me it was the duty of every Irishwoman to dance her toes off, if she ‘d be known for what she is. And twirl! a man had me by the waist, and I dying to find you.’

‘Who was the man?’

‘Not to save these limbs from the lighted stake could I tell you!’

‘You are to perform a ceremonious bow to Lord Larrian.’

‘Chatter first! a little!’

The plea for chatter was disregarded. It was visible that the hero of the night hung listening and in expectation. He and the Beauty were named to one another, and they chatted through a quadrille. Sir Lukin introduced a fellow-Harrovian of old days, Mr. Thomas Redworth, to his wife.

‘Our weather-prophet, meteorologist,’ he remarked, to set them going; ‘you remember, in India, my pointing to you his name in a newspaper — letter on the subject. He was generally safe for the cricketing days.’

Lady Dunstane kindly appeared to call it to mind, and she led upon the them-queried at times by an abrupt ‘Eh?’ and ‘I beg pardon,’ for manifestly his gaze and one of his ears, if not the pair, were given to the young lady discoursing with Lord Larrian. Beauty is rare; luckily is it rare, or, judging from its effect on men, and the very stoutest of them, our world would be internally more distracted planet than we see, to the perversion of business, courtesy, rights of property, and the rest. She perceived an incipient victim, of the hundreds she anticipated, and she very tolerantly talked on: ‘The weather and women have some resemblance they say. Is it true that he who reads the one can read the other?’

Lord Larrian here burst into a brave old laugh, exclaiming, ‘Oh! good!’

Mr. Redworth knitted his thick brows. ‘I beg pardon? Ah! women! Weather and women? No; the one point more variable in women makes all the difference.’

‘Can you tell me what the General laughed at?’

The honest Englishman entered the trap with promptitude. ‘She said:— who is she, may I ask you?’

Lady Dunstane mentioned her name.

Daughter of the famous Dan Merion? The young lady merited examination for her father’s sake. But when reminded of her laughter-moving speech, Mr. Redworth bungled it; he owned he spoilt it, and candidly stated his inability to see the fun. ‘She said, St. George’s Channel in a gale ought to be called St. Patrick’s — something — I missed some point. That quadrille-tune, the Pastourelle, or something . . . ’

‘She had experience of the Channel last night,’ Lady Dunstane pursued, and they both, while in seeming converse, caught snatches from their neighbours, during a pause of the dance.

The sparkling Diana said to Lord Larrian, ‘You really decline to make any of us proud women by dancing to-night?’

The General answered: ‘I might do it on two stilts; I can’t on one.’ He touched his veteran leg.

‘But surely,’ said she, ‘there’s always an inspiration coming to it from its partner in motion, if one of them takes the step.’

He signified a woeful negative. ‘My dear young lady, you say dark things to grey hairs!’

She rejoined: ‘If we were over in England, and you fixed on me the stigma of saying dark things, I should never speak without being thought obscure.’

‘It’s because you flash too brightly for them.’

‘I think it is rather the reminiscence of the tooth that received a stone when it expected candy.’

Again the General laughed; he looked pleased and warmed. ‘Yes, that ‘s their way, that ‘s their way!’ and he repeated her words to himself, diminishing their importance as he stamped them on his memory, but so heartily admiring the lovely speaker, that he considered her wit an honour to the old country, and told her so. Irish prevailed up to boiling-point.

Lady Dunstane, not less gratified, glanced up at Mr. Redworth, whose brows bore the knot of perplexity over a strong stare. He, too, stamped the words on his memory, to see subsequently whether they had a vestige of meaning. Terrifically precocious, he thought her. Lady Dunstane, in her quick sympathy with her friend, read the adverse mind in his face. And her reading of the mind was right, wrong altogether her deduction of the corresponding sentiment.

Music was resumed to confuse the hearing of the eavesdroppers.

They beheld a quaint spectacle: a gentleman, obviously an Englishman, approached, with the evident intention of reminding the Beauty of the night of her engagement to him, and claiming her, as it were, in the lion’s jaws. He advanced a foot, withdrew it, advanced, withdrew; eager for his prize, not over-enterprising; in awe of the illustrious General she entertained — presumeably quite unaware of the pretender’s presence; whereupon a voice was heard: ‘Oh! if it was minuetting you meant before the lady, I’d never have disputed your right to perform, sir.’ For it seemed that there were two claimants in the field, an Irishman and an Englishman; and the former, having a livelier sense of the situation, hung aloof in waiting for her eye; the latter directed himself to strike bluntly at his prey; and he continued minuetting, now rapidly blinking, flushed, angry, conscious of awkwardness and a tangle, incapable of extrication. He began to blink horribly under the raillery of his rival. The General observed him, but as an object remote and minute, a fly or gnat. The face of the brilliant Diana was entirely devoted to him she amused.

Lady Dunstane had the faint lines of a decorous laugh on her lips, as she said: ‘How odd it is that our men show to such disadvantage in a Ball-room. I have seen them in danger, and there they shine first of any, and one is proud of them. They should always be facing the elements or in action.’ She glanced at the minuet, which had become a petrified figure, still palpitating, bent forward, an interrogative reminder.

Mr. Redworth reserved his assent to the proclamation of any English disadvantage. A whiff of Celtic hostility in the atmosphere put him on his mettle. ‘Wherever the man is tried,’ he said.

‘My lady!’ the Irish gentleman bowed to Lady Dunstane. ‘I had the honour . . . Sullivan Smith . . . at the castle . . . ’

She responded to the salute, and Mr. Sullivan Smith proceeded to tell her, half in speech, half in dots most luminous, of a civil contention between the English gentleman and himself, as to the possession of the loveliest of partners for this particular ensuing dance, and that they had simultaneously made a rush from the Lower Courts, namely, their cards, to the Upper, being the lady; and Mr. Sullivan Smith partly founded his preferable claim on her Irish descent, and on his acquaintance with her eminent defunct father — one of the ever-radiating stars of his quenchless country.

Lady Dunstane sympathized with him for his not intruding his claim when the young lady stood preengaged, as well as in humorous appreciation of his imaginative logic.

‘There will be dancing enough after supper,’ she said.

‘If I could score one dance with her, I’d go home supperless and feasted,’ said he. ‘And that’s not saying much among the hordes of hungry troopers tip-toe for the signal to the buffet. See, my lady, the gentleman, as we call him; there he is working his gamut perpetually up to da capo. Oh! but it’s a sheep trying to be wolf; he ‘s sheep-eyed and he ‘s wolf-fanged, pathetic and larcenous! Oh, now! who’d believe it! — the man has dared . . . I’d as soon think of committing sacrilege in a cathedral!’

The man was actually; to quote his indignant rival, ‘breaching the fortress,’ and pointing out to Diana Merion ‘her name on his dirty scrap of paper’: a shocking sight when the lady’s recollection was the sole point to be aimed at, and the only umpire. ‘As if all of us couldn’t have written that, and hadn’t done it!’ Mr. Sullivan Smith groaned disgusted. He hated bad manners, particularly in cases involving ladies; and the bad manners of a Saxon fired his antagonism to the race; individual members of which he boasted of forgiving and embracing, honouring. So the man blackened the race for him, and the race was excused in the man. But his hatred of bad manners was vehement, and would have extended to a fellow-countryman. His own were of the antecedent century, therefore venerable.

Diana turned from her pursuer with a comic woeful lifting of the brows at her friend. Lady Dunstane motioned her fan, and Diana came, bending head.

‘Are you bound in honour?’

‘I don’t think I am. And I do want to go on talking with the General. He is so delightful and modest — my dream of a true soldier! — telling me of his last big battle, bit by bit, to my fishing.’

‘Put off this person for a square dance down the list, and take out Mr. Redworth — Miss Diana Merlon, Mr. Redworth: he will bring you back to the General, who must not totally absorb you, or he will forfeit his popularity.’

Diana instantly struck a treaty with the pertinacious advocate of his claims, to whom, on his relinquishing her, Mr. Sullivan Smith remarked: ‘Oh! sir, the law of it, where a lady’s concerned! You’re one for evictions, I should guess, and the anti-human process. It’s that letter of the law that stands between you and me and mine and yours. But you’ve got your congee, and my blessing on ye!’

‘It was a positive engagement,’ said the enemy.

Mr. Sullivan Smith derided him. ‘And a pretty partner you’ve pickled for yourself when she keeps her positive engagement!’

He besought Lady Dunstane to console him with a turn. She pleaded weariness. He proposed to sit beside her and divert her. She smiled, but warned him that she was English in every vein. He interjected: ‘Irish men and English women! though it’s putting the cart before the horse — the copper pennies where the gold guineas should be. So here’s the gentleman who takes the oyster, like the lawyer of the fable. English is he? But we read, the last shall be first. And English women and Irish men make the finest coupling in the universe.’

‘Well, you must submit to see an Irish woman led out by an English man,’ said Lady Dunstane, at the same time informing the obedient Diana, then bestowing her hand on Mr. Redworth to please her friend, that he was a schoolfellow of her husband’s.

‘Favour can’t help coming by rotation, except in very extraordinary circumstances, and he was ahead of me with you, and takes my due, and ‘twould be hard on me if I weren’t thoroughly indemnified.’ Mr. Sullivan Smith bowed. ‘You gave them just the start over the frozen minute for conversation; they were total strangers, and he doesn’t appear a bad sort of fellow for a temporary mate, though he’s not perfectly sure of his legs. And that we’ll excuse to any man leading out such a fresh young beauty of a Bright Eyes — like the stars of a winter’s night in the frosty season over Columkill, or where you will, so that’s in Ireland, to be sure of the likeness to her.’

‘Her mother was half English.’

‘Of course she was. And what was my observation about the coupling? Dan Merion would make her Irish all over. And she has a vein of Spanish blood in her; for he had; and she’s got the colour. — But you spoke of their coupling — or I did. Oh, a man can hold his own with an English roly-poly mate: he’s not stifled! But a woman hasn’t his power of resistance to dead weight. She’s volatile, she’s frivolous, a rattler and gabbler — haven’t I heard what they say of Irish girls over there? She marries, and it’s the end of her sparkling. She must choose at home for a perfect harmonious partner.’

Lady Dunstane expressed her opinion that her couple danced excellently together.

‘It’d be a bitter thing to see, if the fellow couldn’t dance, after leading her out!’ sighed Mr. Sullivan Smith. ‘I heard of her over there. They, call her the Black Pearl, and the Irish Lily — because she’s dark. They rack their poor brains to get the laugh of us.’

‘And I listen to you,’ said Lady Dunstane.

‘Ah! if all England, half, a quarter, the smallest piece of the land were like you, my lady, I’d be loyal to the finger-nails. Now, is she engaged? — when I get a word with her?’

‘She is nineteen, or nearly, and she ought to have five good years of freedom, I think.’

‘And five good years of serfdom I’d serve to win her!’

A look at him under the eyelids assured Lady Dunstane that there would be small chance for Mr. Sullivan Smith; after a life of bondage, if she knew her Diana, in spite of his tongue, his tact, his lively features, and breadth of shoulders.

Up he sprang. Diana was on Mr. Redworth’s arm. ‘No refreshments,’ she said; and ‘this is my refreshment,’ taking the seat of Mr. Sullivan Smith, who ejaculated,

‘I must go and have that gentleman’s name.’ He wanted a foe.

‘You know you are ready to coquette with the General at any moment, Tony,’ said her friend.

‘Yes, with the General!’

‘He is a noble old man.’

‘Superb. And don’t say “old man.” With his uniform and his height and his grey head, he is like a glorious October day just before the brown leaves fall.’

Diana hummed a little of the air of Planxty Kelly, the favourite of her childhood, as Lady Dunstane well remembered, they smiled together at the scenes and times it recalled.

‘Do you still write verses, Tony?’

‘I could about him. At one part of the fight he thought he would be beaten. He was overmatched in artillery, and it was a cavalry charge he thundered on them, riding across the field to give the word of command to the couple of regiments, riddled to threads, that gained the day. That is life — when we dare death to live! I wonder at men, who are men, being anything but soldiers! I told you, madre, my own Emmy, I forgave you for marrying, because it was a soldier.’

‘Perhaps a soldier is to be the happy man. But you have not told me a word of yourself. What has been done with the old Crossways?’

‘The house, you know, is mine. And it’s all I have: ten acres and the house, furnished, and let for less than two hundred a year. Oh! how I long to evict the tenants! They can’t have my feeling for the place where I was born. They’re people of tolerably good connections, middling wealthy, I suppose, of the name of Warwick, and, as far as I can understand, they stick there to be near the Sussex Downs, for a nephew, who likes to ride on them. I’ve a half engagement, barely legible, to visit them on an indefinite day, and can’t bear the idea of strangers masters in the old house. I must be driven there for shelter, for a roof, some month. And I could make a pilgrimage in rain or snow just to doat on the outside of it. That’s your Tony.’

‘She’s my darling.’

‘I hear myself speak! But your voice or mine, madre, it’s one soul. Be sure I am giving up the ghost when I cease to be one soul with you, dear and dearest! No secrets, never a shadow of a deception, or else I shall feel I am not fit to live. Was I a bad correspondent when you were in India?’

‘Pretty well. Copious letters when you did write.’

‘I was shy. I knew I should be writing, to Emmy and another, and only when I came to the flow could I forget him. He is very finely built; and I dare say he has a head. I read of his deeds in India and quivered. But he was just a bit in the way. Men are the barriers to perfect naturalness, at least, with girls, I think. You wrote to me in the same tone as ever, and at first I had a struggle to reply. And I, who have such pride in being always myself!’

Two staring semi-circles had formed, one to front the Hero; the other the Beauty. These half moons imperceptibly dissolved to replenish, and became a fixed obstruction.

‘Yes, they look,’ Diana made answer to Lady Dunstane’s comment on the curious impertinence. She was getting used to it, and her friend had a gratification in seeing how little this affected her perfect naturalness.

‘You are often in the world — dinners, dances?’ she said.

‘People are kind.’

‘Any proposals?’

‘Nibbles.’

‘Quite heart-free?’

‘Absolutely.’

Diana’s unshadowed bright face defied all menace of an eclipse.

The block of sturdy gazers began to melt. The General had dispersed his group of satellites by a movement with the Mayoress on his arm, construed as the signal for procession to the supper-table.

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