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

Chapter 24

Indicates a Soul Prepared for Desperation

The month was August, four days before the closing of Parliament, and Diana fancied it good for Arthur Rhodes to run down with her to Copsley. He came to her invitation joyfully, reminding her of Lady Dunstane’s wish to hear some chapters of THE CANTATRICE, and the MS. was packed. They started, taking rail and fly, and winding up the distance on foot. August is the month of sober maturity and majestic foliage, songless, but a crowned and royal-robed queenly month; and the youngster’s appreciation of the homely scenery refreshed Diana; his delight in being with her was also pleasant. She had no wish to exchange him for another; and that was a strengthening thought.

At Copsley the arrival of their luggage had prepared the welcome. Warm though it was, Diana perceived a change in Emma, an unwonted reserve, a doubtfulness of her eyes, in spite of tenderness; and thus thrown back on herself, thinking that if she had followed her own counsel (as she called her impulse) in old days, there would have been no such present misery, she at once, and unconsciously, assumed a guarded look. Based on her knowledge of her honest footing, it was a little defiant. Secretly in her bosom it was sharpened to a slight hostility by the knowledge that her mind had been straying. The guilt and the innocence combined to clothe her in mail, the innocence being positive, the guilt so vapoury. But she was armed only if necessary, and there was no requirement for armour. Emma did not question at all. She saw the alteration in her Tony: she was too full of the tragic apprehensiveness, overmastering her to speak of trifles. She had never confided to Tony the exact nature and the growth of her malady, thinking it mortal, and fearing to alarm her dearest.

A portion of the manuscript was read out by Arthur Rhodes in the evening; the remainder next morning. Redworth perceptibly was the model of the English hero; and as to his person, no friend could complain of the sketch; his clear-eyed heartiness, manliness, wholesomeness — a word of Lady Dunstane’s regarding him — and his handsome braced figure, were well painted. Emma forgave the insistance on a certain bluntness of the nose, in consideration of the fond limning of his honest and expressive eyes, and the ‘light on his temples,’ which they had noticed together. She could not so easily forgive the realistic picture of the man: an exaggeration, she thought, of small foibles, that even if they existed, should not have been stressed. The turn for ‘calculating’ was shown up ridiculously; Mr. Cuthbert Dering was calculating in his impassioned moods as well as in his cold. His head was a long division of ciphers. He had statistics for spectacles, and beheld the world through them, and the mistress he worshipped.

‘I see,’ said Emma, during a pause; ‘he is a Saxon. You still affect to have the race en grippe, Tony.’

‘I give him every credit for what he is,’ Diana replied. ‘I admire the finer qualities of the race as much as any one. You want to have them presented to you in enamel, Emmy.’

But the worst was an indication that the mania for calculating in and out of season would lead to the catastrophe destructive of his happiness. Emma could not bear that. Without asking herself whether it could be possible that Tony knew the secret, or whether she would have laid it bare, her sympathy for Redworth revolted at the exposure. She was chilled. She let it pass; she merely said: ‘I like the writing.’

Diana understood that her story was condemned.

She put on her robes of philosophy to cloak discouragement. ‘I am glad the writing pleases you.’

‘The characters are as true as life!’ cried Arthur Rhodes. ‘The Cantatrice drinking porter from the pewter at the slips after harrowing the hearts of her audience, is dearer to me than if she had tottered to a sofa declining sustenance; and because her creatrix has infused such blood of life into her that you accept naturally whatever she does. She was exhausted, and required the porter, like a labourer in the cornfield.’

Emma looked at him, and perceived the poet swamped by the admirer. Taken in conjunction with Mr. Cuthbert Dering’s frenzy for calculating, she disliked the incident of the porter and the pewter.

‘While the Cantatrice swallowed her draught, I suppose Mr. Dering counted the cost?’ she said.

‘It really might be hinted,’ said Diana.

The discussion closed with the accustomed pro and con upon the wart of Cromwell’s nose, Realism rejoicing in it, Idealism objecting.

Arthur Rhodes was bidden to stretch his legs on a walk along the heights in the afternoon, and Emma was further vexed by hearing Tony complain of Redworth’s treatment of the lad, whom he would not assist to any of the snug little posts he was notoriously able to dispense.

‘He has talked of Mr. Rhodes to me,’ said Emma. ‘He thinks the profession of literature a delusion, and doubts the wisdom of having poets for clerks.’

‘John–Bullish!’ Diana exclaimed. ‘He speaks contemptuously of the poor boy.’

‘Only inasmuch as the foolishness of the young man in throwing up the Law provokes his practical mind to speak.’

‘He might take my word for the “young man’s” ability. I want him to have the means of living, that he may write. He has genius.’

‘He may have it. I like him, and have said so. If he were to go back to his law-stool, I have no doubt that Redworth would manage to help him.’

‘And make a worthy ancient Braddock of a youth of splendid promise! Have I sketched him too Saxon?’

‘It is the lens, and hot the tribe, Tony.’

THE CANTATRICE was not alluded to any more; but Emma’s disapproval blocked the current of composition, already subject to chokings in the brain of the author. Diana stayed three days at Copsley, one longer than she had intended, so that Arthur Rhodes might have his fill of country air.

‘I would keep him, but I should be no companion for him,’ Emma said.

‘I suspect the gallant squire is only to be satisfied by landing me safely,’ said Diana, and that small remark grated, though Emma saw the simple meaning. When they parted, she kissed her Tony many times. Tears were in her eyes. It seemed to Diana that she was anxious to make amends for the fit of alienation, and she was kissed in return warmly, quite forgiven, notwithstanding the deadly blank she had caused in the imagination of the writer for pay, distracted by the squabbles of Debit and Credit.

Diana chatted spiritedly to young Rhodes on their drive to the train. She was profoundly discouraged by Emma’s disapproval of her work. It wanted but that one drop to make a recurrence to the work impossible. There it must lie! And what of the aspects of her household? — Perhaps, after all, the Redworths of the world are right, and Literature as a profession is a delusive pursuit. She did not assent to it without hostility to the world’s Redworths. —‘They have no sensitiveness, we have too much. We are made of bubbles that a wind will burst, and as the wind is always blowing, your practical Redworths have their crow of us.’

She suggested advice to Arthur Rhodes upon the prudence of his resuming the yoke of the Law.

He laughed at such a notion, saying that he had some expectations of money to come.

‘But I fear,’ said he, ‘that Lady Dunstane is very very ill. She begged me to keep her informed of your address.’

Diana told him he was one of those who should know it whithersoever she went. She spoke impulsively, her sentiments of friendliness for the youth being temporarily brightened by the strangeness of Emma’s conduct in deputing it to him to fulfil a duty she had never omitted. ‘What can she think I am going to do!’

On her table at home lay, a letter from Mr. Warwick. She read it hastily in the presence of Arthur Rhodes, having at a glance at the handwriting anticipated the proposal it contained and the official phrasing.

Her gallant squire was invited to dine with her that evening, costume excused.

They conversed of Literature as a profession, of poets dead and living, of politics, which he abhorred and shied at, and of his prospects. He wrote many rejected pages, enjoyed an income of eighty pounds per annum, and eked out a subsistence upon the modest sum his pen procured him; a sum extremely insignificant; but great Nature was his own, the world was tributary to him, the future his bejewelled and expectant bride. Diana envied his youthfulness. Nothing is more enviable, nothing richer to the mind, than the aspect of a cheerful poverty. How much nobler it was, contrasted with Redworth’s amassing of wealth!

When alone, she went to her bedroom and tried to write, tried to sleep. Mr. Warwick’s letter was looked at. It seemed to indicate a threat; but for the moment it did not disturb her so much as the review of her moral prostration. She wrote some lines to her lawyers, quoting one of Mr. Warwick’s sentences. That done, his letter was dismissed. Her intolerable languor became alternately a defeating drowsiness and a fever. She succeeded in the effort to smother the absolute cause: it was not suffered to show a front; at the cost of her knowledge of a practised self-deception. ‘I wonder whether the world is as bad as a certain class of writers tell us!’ she sighed in weariness, and mused on their soundings and probings of poor humanity, which the world accepts for the very bottom truth if their dredge brings up sheer refuse of the abominable. The world imagines those to be at our nature’s depths who are impudent enough to expose its muddy shallows. She was in the mood for such a kind of writing: she could have started on it at once but that the theme was wanting; and it may count on popularity, a great repute for penetration. It is true of its kind, though the dredging of nature is the miry form of art. When it flourishes we may be assured we have been overenamelling the higher forms. She felt, and shuddered to feel, that she could draw from dark stores. Hitherto in her works it had been a triumph of the good. They revealed a gaping deficiency of the subtle insight she now possessed. ‘Exhibit humanity as it is, wallowing, sensual, wicked, behind the mask,’ a voice called to her; she was allured by the contemplation of the wide-mouthed old dragon Ego, whose portrait, decently painted, establishes an instant touch of exchange between author and public, the latter detected and confessing. Next to the pantomime of Humour and Pathos, a cynical surgical knife at the human bosom seems the surest talisman for this agreeable exchange; and she could cut. She gave herself a taste of her powers. She cut at herself mercilessly, and had to bandage the wound in a hurry to keep in life.

Metaphors were her refuge. Metaphorically she could allow her mind to distinguish the struggle she was undergoing, sinking under it. The banished of Eden had to put on metaphors, and the common use of them has helped largely to civilize us. The sluggish in intellect detest them, but our civilization is not much indebted to that major faction. Especially are they needed by the pedestalled woman in her conflict with the natural. Diana saw herself through the haze she conjured up. ‘Am I worse than other women?’ was a piercing twithought. Worse, would be hideous isolation. The not worse, abased her sex. She could afford to say that the world was bad: not that women were.

Sinking deeper, an anguish of humiliation smote her to a sense of drowning. For what of the poetic ecstasy on her Salvatore heights had not been of origin divine? had sprung from other than spiritual founts? had sprung from the reddened sources she was compelled to conceal? Could it be? She would not believe it. But there was matter to clip her wings, quench her light, in the doubt.

She fell asleep like the wrecked flung ashore.

Danvers entered her room at an early hour for London to inform her that Mr. Percy Dacier was below, and begged permission to wait.

Diana gave orders for breakfast to be proposed to him. She lay staring at the wall until it became too visibly a reflection of her mind.

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