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

Chapter 21

‘The Young Minister of State’

Descriptions in the newspapers of the rural funeral of Lord Dannisburgh had the effect of rousing flights of tattlers with a twittering of the disused name of Warwick; our social Gods renewed their combat, and the verdict of the jury was again overhauled, to be attacked and maintained, the carpers replying to the champions that they held to their view of it: as heads of bull-dogs are expected to do when they have got a grip of one. It is a point of muscular honour with them never to relax their hold. They will tell you why:— they formed that opinion from the first. And but for the swearing of a particular witness, upon whom the plaintiff had been taught to rely, the verdict would have been different — to prove their soundness of judgement. They could speak from private positive information of certain damnatory circumstances, derived from authentic sources. Visits of a gentleman to the house of a married lady in the absence of the husband? Oh! — The British Lucretia was very properly not legally at home to the masculine world of that day. She plied her distaff in pure seclusion, meditating on her absent lord; or else a fair proportion of the masculine world, which had not yet, has not yet, ‘doubled Cape Turk,’ approved her condemnation to the sack.

There was talk in the feminine world, at Lady Wathin’s assemblies. The elevation of her husband had extended and deepened her influence on the levels where it reigned before, but without, strange as we may think it now, assisting to her own elevation, much aspired for, to the smooth and lively upper pavement of Society, above its tumbled strata. She was near that distinguished surface, not on it. Her circle was practically the same as it was previous to the coveted nominal rank enabling her to trample on those beneath it. And women like that Mrs. Warwick, a woman of no birth, no money, not even honest character, enjoyed the entry undisputed, circulated among the highest:— because people took her rattle for wit! — and because also our nobility, Lady Wathin feared, had no due regard for morality. Our aristocracy, brilliant and ancient though it was, merited rebuke. She grew severe upon aristocratic scandals, whereof were plenty among the frolicsome host just overhead, as vexatious as the drawing-room party to the lodger in the floor below, who has not received an invitation to partake of the festivities and is required to digest the noise. But if ambition is oversensitive, moral indignation is ever consolatory, for it plants us on the Judgement Seat. There indeed we may, sitting with the very Highest, forget our personal disappointments in dispensing reprobation for misconduct, however eminent the offenders.

She was Lady Wathin, and once on an afternoon’s call to see poor Lady Dunstane at her town-house, she had been introduced to Lady Pennon, a patroness of Mrs. Warwick, and had met a snub — an icy check-bow of the aristocratic head from the top of the spinal column, and not a word, not a look; the half-turn of a head devoid of mouth and eyes! She practised that forbidding checkbow herself to perfection, so the endurance of it was horrible. A noli me tangere, her husband termed it, in his ridiculous equanimity; and he might term it what he pleased — it was insulting. The solace she had was in hearing that hideous Radical Revolutionary things were openly spoken at Mrs. Warwick’s evenings with her friends:— impudently named ‘the elect of London.’ Pleasing to reflect upon Mrs. Warwick as undermining her supporters, to bring them some day down with a crash! Her ‘elect of London’ were a queer gathering, by report of them! And Mr. Whitmonby too, no doubt a celebrity, was the right-hand man at these dinner-parties of Mrs. Warwick. Where will not men go to be flattered by a pretty woman! He had declined repeated, successive invitations to Lady Wathin’s table. But there of course he would not have had ‘the freedom’: that is, she rejoiced in thinking defensively and offensively, a moral wall enclosed her topics. The Hon. Percy Dacier had been brought to her Thursday afternoon by. Mr. Quintin Manx, and he had one day dined with her; and he knew Mrs. Warwick — a little, he said. The opportunity was not lost to convey to him, entirely in the interest of sweet Constance Asper, that the moral world entertained a settled view of the very clever woman Mrs. Warwick certainly was. He had asked Diana, on their morning walk to the station, whether she had an enemy: so prone are men, educated by the Drama and Fiction in the belief that the garden of civilized life must be at the mercy of the old wild devourers, to fancy ‘villain whispers’ an indication of direct animosity. Lady Wathin had no sentiment of the kind.

But she had become acquainted with the other side of the famous Dannisburgh case — the unfortunate plaintiff; and compassion as well as morality moved her to put on a speaking air when Mr. Warwick’s name was mentioned. She pictured him to the ladies of her circle as ‘one of our true gentlemen in his deportment and his feelings.’ He was, she would venture to say, her ideal of an English gentleman. ‘But now,’ she added commiseratingly, ‘ruined; ruined in his health and in his prospects.’ A lady inquired if it was the verdict that had thus affected him. Lady Wathin’s answer was reported over moral, or substratum, London: ‘He is the victim of a fatal passion for his wife; and would take her back tomorrow were she to solicit his forgiveness.’ Morality had something to say against this active marital charity, attributable, it was to be feared, to weakness of character on the part of the husband. Still Mrs. Warwick undoubtedly was one of those women (of Satanic construction) who have the art of enslaving the men unhappy enough to cross their path. The nature of the art was hinted, with the delicacy of dainty feet which have to tread in mire to get to safety. Men, alas! are snared in this way. Instances too numerous for the good repute of the swinish sex, were cited, and the question of how Morality was defensible from their grossness passed without a tactical reply. There is no defence: Those women come like the Cholera Morbus — and owing to similar causes. They will prevail until the ideas of men regarding women are purified. Nevertheless the husband who could forgive, even propose to forgive, was deemed by consent generous, however weak. Though she might not have been wholly guilty, she had bitterly offended. And he despatched an emissary to her? — The theme, one may, in their language, ‘fear,’ was relished as a sugared acid. It was renewed in the late Autumn of the year, when ANTONIA published her new book, entitled THE YOUNG MINISTER of STATE. The signature of the authoress was now known; and from this resurgence of her name in public, suddenly a radiation of tongues from the circle of Lady Wathin declared that the repentant Mrs. Warwick had gone back to her husband’s bosom and forgiveness! The rumour spread in spite of sturdy denials at odd corners, counting the red-hot proposal of Mr. Sullivan Smith to eat his head and boots for breakfast if it was proved correct. It filled a yawn of the Clubs for the afternoon. Soon this wanton rumour was met and stifled by another of more morbific density, heavily charged as that which led the sad Eliza to her pyre.

ANTONIA’s hero was easily identified. THE YOUNG MINISTER of STATE could be he only who was now at all her parties, always meeting her; had been spied walking with her daily in the park near her house, on his march down to Westminster during the session; and who positively went to concerts and sat under fiddlers to be near her. It accounted moreover for his treatment of Constance Asper. What effrontery of the authoress, to placard herself with him in a book! The likeness of the hero to Percy Dacier once established became striking to glaringness — a proof of her ability, and more of her audacity; still more of her intention to flatter him up to his perdition. By the things written of him, one would imagine the conversations going on behind the scenes. She had the wiles of a Cleopatra, not without some of the Nilene’s experiences. A youthful Antony Dacier would be little likely to escape her toils. And so promising a young man! The sigh, the tear for weeping over his destruction, almost fell, such vivid realizing of the prophesy appeared in its pathetic pronouncement.

This low rumour, or malaria, began blowing in the winter, and did not travel fast; for strangely, there was hardly a breath of it in the atmosphere of Dacier, none in Diana’s. It rose from groups not so rapidly and largely mixing, and less quick to kindle; whose crazy sincereness battened on the smallest morsel of fact and collected the fictitious by slow absorption. But as guardians of morality, often doing good duty in their office, they are persistent. When Parliament assembled, Mr. Quintin Manx, a punctual member of the House, if nothing else, arrived in town. He was invited to dine with Lady Wathin. After dinner she spoke to him of the absent Constance, and heard of her being well, and expressed a great rejoicing at that. Whereupon the burly old shipowner frowned and puffed. Constance, he said, had plunged into these new spangle, candle and high singing services; was all for symbols, harps, effigies, what not. Lady Wathin’s countenance froze in hearing of it. She led Mr. Quintin to a wall-sofa, and said: ‘Surely the dear child must have had a disappointment, for her to have taken to those foolish displays of religion! It is generally a sign.’

‘Well, ma’ammy lady — I let girls go their ways in such things. I don’t interfere. But it’s that fellow, or nobody, with her. She has fixed her girl’s mind on him, and if she can’t columbine as a bride, she will as a nun. Young people must be at some harlequinade.’

‘But it is very shocking. And he?’

‘He plays last and loose, warm and cold. I’m ready to settle twenty times a nobleman’s dowry on my niece and she’s a fine girl, a handsome girl, educated up to the brim, fit to queen it in any drawing-room. He holds her by some arts that don’t hold him, it seems. He’s all for politics.’

‘Constance can scarcely be his dupe so far, I should think.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Everything points to one secret of his conduct.’

‘A woman?’

Lady Wathin’s head shook for her sex’s pained affirmative.

Mr. Quintin in the same fashion signified the downright negative. ‘The fellow’s as cold as a fish.’

‘Flattery will do anything. There is, I fear, one.’

‘Widow? wife? maid?’

‘Married, I regret to say.’

‘Well, if he’d get over with it,’ said Quintin, in whose notions the seductiveness of a married woman could be only temporary, for all the reasons pertaining to her state. At the same time his view of Percy Dacier was changed in thinking it possible that a woman could divert him from his political and social interests. He looked incredulous.

‘You have heard of a Mrs. Warwick?’ said Lady Wathin.

‘Warwick! I have. I’ve never seen her. At my broker’s in the City yesterday I saw the name on a Memorandum of purchase of Shares in a concern promising ten per cent., and not likely to carry the per annum into the plural. He told me she was a grand kind of woman, past advising.’

‘For what amount’

‘Some thousands, I think it was.’

‘She has no money’: Lady Wathin corrected her emphasis: ‘or ought to have none.’

‘She can’t have got it from him.’

‘Did you notice her Christian name?’

‘I don’t recollect it, if I did. I thought the woman a donkey.’

‘Would you consider me a busybody were I to try to mitigate this woman’s evil influence? I love dear Constance, and should be happy to serve her.’

‘I want my girl married,’ said old Quintin. ‘He’s one of my Parliamentary chiefs, with first-rate prospects; good family, good sober fellow — at least I thought so; by nature, I mean; barring your incantations. He suits me, she liking him.’

‘She admires him, I am sure.’

‘She’s dead on end for the fellow!’

Lady Wathin felt herself empowered by Quintin Manx to undertake the release of sweet Constance Asper’s knight from the toils of his enchantress. For this purpose she had first an interview with Mr. Warwick, and next she hurried to Lady Dunstane at Copsley. There, after jumbling Mr. Warwick’s connubial dispositions and Mrs. Warwick’s last book, and Mr. Percy Dacier’s engagement to the great heiress in a gossipy hotch-potch, she contrived to gather a few items of fact, as that THE YOUNG MINISTER was probably modelled upon Mr. Percy Dacier. Lady Dunstane made no concealment of it as soon as she grew sensible of the angling. But she refused her help to any reconciliation between Mr. and Mrs. Warwick. She declined to listen to Lady Wathin’s entreaties. She declined to give her reasons. — These bookworm women, whose pride it is to fancy that they can think for themselves, have a great deal of the heathen in them, as morality discovers when it wears the enlistment ribands and applies yo them to win recruits for a service under the direct blessing of Providence.

Lady Wathin left some darts behind her, in the form of moral exclamations; and really intended morally. For though she did not like Mrs. Warwick, she had no wish to wound, other than by stopping her further studies of the Young Minister, and conducting him to the young lady loving him, besides restoring a bereft husband to his own. How sadly pale and worn poor Mr. Warwick appeared? The portrayal of his withered visage to Lady Dunstane had quite failed to gain a show of sympathy. And so it is ever with your book-worm women pretending to be philosophical! You sound them vainly for a manifestation of the commonest human sensibilities, They turn over the leaves of a Latin book on their laps while you are supplicating them to assist in a work of charity!

Lady Wathin’s interjectory notes haunted Emma’s ear. Yet she had seen nothing in Tony to let her suppose that there was trouble of her heart below the surface; and her Tony when she came to Copsley shone in the mood of the day of Lord Dannisburgh’s drive down from London with her. She was running on a fresh work; talked of composition as a trifle.

‘I suppose the YOUNG MINISTER is Mr. Percy Dacier?’ said Emma.

‘Between ourselves he is,’ Diana replied, smiling at a secret guessed. ‘You know my model and can judge of the likeness.’

‘You write admiringly of him, Tony.’

‘And I do admire him. So would you, Emmy, if you knew him as well as I do now. He pairs with Mr. Redworth; he also is the friend of women. But he lifts us to rather a higher level of intellectual friendship. When the ice has melted — and it is thick at first — he pours forth all his ideas without reserve; and they are deep and noble. Ever since Lord Dannisburgh’s death and our sitting together, we have been warm friends — intimate, I would say, if it could be said of one so self-contained. In that respect, no young man was ever comparable with him. And I am encouraged to flatter myself that he unbends to me more than to others.’

‘He is engaged, or partly, I hear; why does he not marry?’

‘I wish he would!’ Diana said, with a most brilliant candour of aspect.

Emma read in it, that it would complete her happiness, possibly by fortifying her sense of security; and that seemed right. Her own meditations, illumined by the beautiful face in her presence, referred to the security of Mr. Dacier.

‘So, then, life is going smoothly,’ said Emma.

‘Yes, at a good pace and smoothly: not a torrent — Thames-like, “without o’erflowing full.” It is not Lugano and the Salvatore. Perhaps it is better: as action is better than musing.’

‘No troubles whatever?’

‘None. Well, except an “adorer” at times. I have to take him as my portion. An impassioned Caledonian has a little bothered me. I met him at Lady Pennon’s, and have been meeting him, as soon as I put foot out of my house, ever since. If I could impress and impound him to marry Mary Paynham, I should be glad. By the way, I have consented to let her try at a portrait of me. No, I have no troubles. I have friends, the choicest of the nation; I have health, a field for labour, fairish success with it; a mind alive, such as it is. I feel like that midsummer morning of our last drive out together, the sun high, clearish, clouded enough to be cool. And still I envy Emmy on her sofa, mastering Latin, biting at Greek. What a wise recommendation that was of Mr. Redworth’s! He works well in the House. He spoke excellently the other night.’

‘He runs over to Ireland this Easter.’

‘He sees for himself, and speaks with authority. He sees and feels. Englishmen mean well, but they require an extremity of misery to waken their feelings.’

‘It is coming, he says; and absit omen!’

‘Mr. Dacier says he is the one Englishman who may always be sure of an Irish hearing; and he does not cajole them, you know. But the English defect is really not want of feeling so much as want of foresight. They will not look ahead. A famine ceasing, a rebellion crushed, they jog on as before, with their Dobbin trot and blinker confidence in “Saxon energy.” They should study the Irish: I think it was Mr. Redworth who compared the governing of the Irish to the management of a horse: the rider should not grow restive when the steed begins to kick: calmer; firm, calm, persuasive.’

‘Does Mr. Dacier agree?’

‘Not always. He has the inveterate national belief that Celtic blood is childish, and the consequently illogical disregard of its hold of impressions. The Irish — for I have them in my heart, though I have not been among them for long at a time — must love you to serve you, and will hate you if you have done them injury and they have not wiped it out — they with a treble revenge, or you with cordial benefits. I have told him so again and again: ventured to suggest measures.’

‘He listens to you, Tony?’

‘He says I have brains. It ends in a compliment.’

‘You have inspired Mr. Redworth.’

‘If I have, I have lived for some good.’

Altogether her Tony’s conversation proved to Emma that her perusal of the model of THE YOUNG MINISTER OF STATE was an artist’s, free, open, and not discoloured by the personal tincture. Her heart plainly was free and undisturbed. She had the same girl’s love of her walks where wildflowers grew; if possible, a keener pleasure. She hummed of her happiness in being at Copsley, singing her Planxty Kelly and The Puritani by turns. She stood on land: she was not on the seas. Emma thought so with good reason.

She stood on land, it was true, but she stood on a cliff of the land, the seas below and about her; and she was enabled to hoodwink her friend because the assured sensation of her firm footing deceived her own soul, even while it took short flights to the troubled waters. Of her firm footing she was exultingly proud. She stood high, close to danger, without giddiness. If at intervals her soul flew out like lightning from the rift (a mere shot of involuntary fancy, it seemed to her), the suspicion of instability made her draw on her treasury of impressions of the mornings at Lugano — her loftiest, purest, dearest; and these reinforced her. She did not ask herself why she should have to seek them for aid. In other respects her mind was alert and held no sly covers, as the fiction of a perfect ignorant innocence combined with common intelligence would have us to suppose that the minds of women can do. She was honest as long as she was not directly questioned, pierced to the innermost and sanctum of the bosom. She could honestly summon bright light to her eyes in wishing the man were married. She did not ask herself why she called it up. The remorseless progressive interrogations of a Jesuit Father in pursuit of the bosom’s verity might have transfixed it and shown her to herself even then a tossing vessel as to the spirit, far away from that firm land she trod so bravely.

Descending from the woody heights upon London, Diana would have said that her only anxiety concerned young Mr. Arthur Rhodes, whose position she considered precarious, and who had recently taken a drubbing for venturing to show a peep of his head, like an early crocus, in the literary market. Her ANTONIA’S last book had been reviewed obediently to smart taps from the then commanding baton of Mr. Tonans, and Mr. Whitmonby’s choice picking of specimens down three columns of his paper. A Literary Review (Charles Rainer’s property) had suggested that perhaps ‘the talented authoress might be writing too rapidly’; and another, actuated by the public taste of the period for our ‘vigorous homely Saxon’ in one and two syllable words, had complained of a ‘tendency to polysyllabic phraseology.’ The remainder, a full majority, had sounded eulogy with all their band-instruments, drum, trumpet, fife, trombone. Her foregoing work had raised her to Fame, which is the Court of a Queen when the lady has beauty and social influence, and critics are her dedicated courtiers, gaping for the royal mouth to be opened, and reserving the kicks of their independent manhood for infamous outsiders, whom they hoist in the style and particular service of pitchforks. They had fallen upon a little volume of verse, ‘like a body of barn-door hens on a stranger chick,’ Diana complained; and she chid herself angrily for letting it escape her forethought to propitiate them on the author’s behalf. Young Rhodes was left with scarce a feather; and what remained to him appeared a preposterous ornament for the decoration of a shivering and welted poet. He laughed, or tried the mouth of laughter. ANTONIA’s literary conscience was vexed at the different treatment she had met and so imperatively needed that the reverse of it would have threatened the smooth sailing of her costly household. A merry-go-round of creditors required a corresponding whirligig of receipts.

She felt mercenary, debased by comparison with the well-scourged verse-mason, Orpheus of the untenanted city, who had done his publishing ingenuously for glory: a good instance of the comic-pathetic. She wrote to Emma, begging her to take him in at Copsley for a few days: ‘I told you I had no troubles. I am really troubled about this poor boy. He has very little money and has embarked on literature. I cannot induce any of my friends to lend him a hand. Mr. Redworth gruffly insists on his going back to his law-clerk’s office and stool, and Mr. Dacier says that no place is vacant. The reality of Lord Dannisburgh’s death is brought before me by my helplessness. He would have made him an assistant private Secretary, pending a Government appointment, rather than let me plead in vain.’

Mr. Rhodes with his travelling bag was packed off to Copsley, to enjoy a change of scene after his run of the gauntlet. He was very heartily welcomed by Lady Dunstane, both for her Tony’s sake and his own modest worship of that luminary, which could permit of being transparent; but chiefly she welcomed him as the living proof of Tony’s disengagement from anxiety, since he was her one spot of trouble, and could easily be comforted by reading with her, and wandering through the Spring woods along the heights. He had a happy time, midway in air between his accomplished hostess and his protecting Goddess. His bruises were soon healed. Each day was radiant to him, whether it rained or shone; and by his looks and what he said of himself Lady Dunstane understood that he was in the highest temper of the human creature tuned to thrilling accord with nature. It was her generous Tony’s work. She blessed it, and liked the youth the better.

During the stay of Mr. Arthur Rhodes at Copsley, Sir Lukin came on a visit to his wife. He mentioned reports in the scandal-papers: one, that Mr. P. D. would shortly lead to the altar the lovely heiress Miss A., Percy Dacier and Constance Asper:— another, that a reconciliation was to be expected between the beautiful authoress Mrs. W. and her husband. ‘Perhaps it’s the best thing she can do,’ Sir Lukin added.

Lady Dunstane pronounced a woman’s unforgiving: ‘Never.’ The revolt of her own sensations assured her of Tony’s unconquerable repugnance. In conversation subsequently with Arthur Rhodes, she heard that he knew the son of Mr. Warwick’s attorney, a Mr. Fern; and he had gathered from him some information of Mr. Warwick’s condition of health. It had been alarming; young Fern said it was confirmed heart-disease. His father frequently saw Mr. Warwick, and said he was fretting himself to death.

It seemed just a possibility that Tony’s natural compassionateness had wrought on her to immolate herself and nurse to his end the man who had wrecked her life. Lady Dunstane waited for the news. At last she wrote, touching the report incidentally. There was no reply. The silence ensuing after such a question responded forcibly.

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