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

Chapter 26

In which a Disappointed Lover Receives a Multitude of Lessons

Dacier welted at the station, a good figure of a sentinel over his luggage and a spy for one among the inpouring passengers. Tickets had been confidently taken, the private division of the carriages happily secured. On board the boat she would be veiled. Landed on French soil, they threw off disguises, breasted the facts. And those? They lightened. He smarted with his eagerness.

He had come well in advance of the appointed time, for he would not have had her hang about there one minute alone.

Strange as this adventure was to a man of prominent station before the world, and electrical as the turning-point of a destiny that he was given to weigh deliberately and far-sightedly, Diana’s image strung him to the pitch of it. He looked nowhere but ahead, like an archer putting hand for his arrow.

Presently he compared his watch and the terminus clock. She should now be arriving. He went out to meet her and do service. Many cabs and carriages were peered into, couples inspected, ladies and their maids, wives and their husbands — an August exodus to the Continent. Nowhere the starry she. But he had a fund of patience. She was now in some block of the streets. He was sure of her, sure of her courage. Tony and recreancy could not go together. Now that he called her Tony, she was his close comrade, known; the name was a caress and a promise, breathing of her, as the rose of sweetest earth. He counted it to be a month ere his family would have wind of the altered position of his affairs, possibly a year to the day of his making the dear woman his own in the eyes of the world. She was dear past computation, womanly, yet quite unlike the womanish woman, unlike the semi-males courteously called dashing, unlike the sentimental. His present passion for her lineaments, declared her surpassingly beautiful, though his critical taste was rather for the white statue that gave no warmth. She had brains and ardour, she had grace and sweetness, a playful petulancy enlivening our atmosphere, and withal a refinement, a distinction, not to be classed; and justly might she dislike the being classed. Her humour was a perennial refreshment, a running well, that caught all the colours of light; her wit studded the heavens of the recollection of her. In his heart he felt that it was a stepping down for the brilliant woman to give him her hand; a condescension and an act of valour. She who always led or prompted when they conversed, had now in her generosity abandoned the lead and herself to him, and she deserved his utmost honouring.

But where was she? He looked at his watch, looked at the clock. They said the same: ten minutes to the moment of the train’s departure.

A man may still afford to dwell on the charms and merits of his heart’s mistress while he has ten minutes to spare. The dropping minutes, however, detract one by one from her individuality and threaten to sink her in her sex entirely. It is the inexorable clock that says she is as other women. Dacier began to chafe. He was unaccustomed to the part he was performing:— and if she failed him? She would not. She would be late, though. No, she was in time! His long legs crossed the platform to overtake a tall lady veiled and dressed in black. He lifted his hat; he heard an alarmed little cry and retired. The clock said, Five minutes: a secret chiromancy in addition indicating on its face the word Fool. An odd word to be cast at him! It rocked the icy pillar of pride in the background of his nature. Certainly standing solos at the hour of eight P.M., he would stand for a fool. Hitherto he had never allowed a woman to chance to posture him in that character. He strode out, returned, scanned every lady’s shape, and for a distraction watched the veiled lady whom he had accosted. Her figure suggested pleasant features. Either she was disappointed or she was an adept. At the shutting of the gates she glided through, not without a fearful look around and at him. She disappeared. Dacier shrugged. His novel assimilation to the rat-rabble of amatory intriguers tapped him on the shoulder unpleasantly. A luckless member of the fraternity too! The bell, the clock and the train gave him his title. ‘And I was ready to fling down everything for the woman!’ The trial of a superb London gentleman’s resources in the love-passion could not have been much keener. No sign of her.

He who stands ready to defy the world, and is baffled by the absence of his fair assistant, is the fool doubled, so completely the fool that he heads the universal shout; he does not spare himself. The sole consolation he has is to revile the sex. Women! women! Whom have they not made a fool of! His uncle as much as any — and professing to know them. Him also! the man proud of escaping their wiles. ‘For this woman . . .!’ he went on saying after he had lost sight of her in her sex’s trickeries. The nearest he could get to her was to conceive that the arrant coquette was now laughing at her utter subjugation and befooling of the man popularly supposed invincible. If it were known of him! The idea of his being a puppet fixed for derision was madly distempering. He had only to ask the affirmative of Constance Asper tomorrow! A vision of his determination to do it, somewhat comforted him.

Dacier walked up and down the platform, passing his pile of luggage, solitary and eloquent on the barrow. Never in his life having been made to look a fool, he felt the red heat of the thing, as a man who has not blessedly become acquainted with the swish in boyhood finds his untempered blood turn to poison at a blow; he cannot healthily take a licking. But then it had been so splendid an insanity when he urged Diana to fly with him. Any one but a woman would have appreciated the sacrifice.

His luggage had to be removed. He dropped his porter a lordly fee and drove home. From that astonished solitude he strolled to his Club. Curiosity mastering the wrath it was mixed with, he left his Club and crossed the park southward in the direction of Diana’s house, abusing her for her inveterate attachment to the regions of Westminster. There she used to receive Lord Dannisburgh; innocently, no doubt-assuredly quite innocently; and her husband had quitted the district. Still it was rather childish for a woman to-be always haunting the seats of Parliament. Her disposition to imagine that she was able to inspire statesmen came in for a share of ridicule; for when we know ourselves to be ridiculous, a retort in kind, unjust upon consideration, is balm. The woman dragged him down to the level of common men; that was the peculiar injury, and it swept her undistinguished into the stream of women. In appearance, as he had proved to the fellows at his Club, he was perfectly self-possessed, mentally distracted and bitter, hating himself for it, snapping at the cause of it. She had not merely disappointed, she had slashed his high conceit of himself, curbed him at the first animal dash forward, and he champed the bit with the fury of a thwarted racer.

Twice he passed her house. Of course no light was shown at her windows. They were scanned malignly.

He held it due to her to call and inquire whether there was any truth in the report of Mrs. Warwick’s illness. Mrs. Warwick! She meant to keep the name.

A maid-servant came to the door with a candle in her hand revealing red eyelids. She was not aware that her mistress was unwell. Her mistress had left home some time after six o’clock with a gentleman. She was unable to tell him the gentleman’s name. William, the footman, had opened the door to him. Her mistress’s maid Mrs. Danvers had gone to the Play — with William. She thought that Mrs. Danvers might know who the gentleman was. The girl’s eyelids blinked, and she turned aside. Dacier consoled her with a piece of gold, saying he would come and see Mrs. Danvers in the morning.

His wrath was partially quieted by the new speculations offered up to it. He could not conjure a suspicion of treachery in Diana Warwick; and a treachery so foully cynical! She had gone with a gentleman. He guessed on all sides; he struck at walls, as in complete obscurity.

The mystery of her conduct troubling his wits for the many hours was explained by Danvers. With a sympathy that she was at pains to show, she informed him that her mistress was not at all unwell, and related of how Mr. Redworth had arrived just when her mistress was on the point of starting for Paris and the Continent; because poor Lady Dunstane was this very day to undergo an operation under the surgeons at Copsley, and she did not wish her mistress to be present, but Mr. Redworth thought her mistress ought to be there, and he had gone down thinking she was there, and then came back in hot haste to fetch her, and was just in time, as it happened, by two or three minutes.

Dacier rewarded the sympathetic woman for her intelligence, which appeared to him to have shot so far as to require a bribe. Gratitude to the person soothing his unwontedly ruffled temper was the cause of the indiscretion in the amount he gave.

It appeared to him that he ought to proceed to Copsley for tidings of Lady Dunstane. Thither he sped by the handy railway and a timely train. He reached the parkgates at three in the afternoon, telling his flyman to wait. As he advanced by short cuts over the grass, he studied the look of the rows of windows. She was within, and strangely to his clouded senses she was no longer Tony, no longer the deceptive woman he could in justice abuse. He and she, so close to union, were divided. A hand resembling the palpable interposition of Fate had swept them asunder. Having the poorest right — not any — to reproach her, he was disarmed, he felt himself a miserable intruder; he summoned his passion to excuse him, and gained some unsatisfied repose of mind by contemplating its devoted sincerity; which roused an effort to feel for the sufferer — Diana Warwick’s friend. With the pair of surgeons named, the most eminent of their day, in attendance, the case must be serious. To vindicate the breaker of her pledge, his present plight likewise assured him of that, and nearing the house he adopted instinctively the funeral step and mood, just sensible of a novel smallness. For the fortifying testimony of his passion had to be put aside, he was obliged to disavow it for a simpler motive if he applied at the door. He stressed the motive, produced the sentiment, and passed thus naturally into hypocrisy, as lovers precipitated by their blood among the crises of human conditions are often forced to do. He had come to inquire after Lady Dunstane. He remembered that it had struck him as a duty, on hearing of her dangerous illness.

The door opened before he touched the bell. Sir Lukin knocked against him and stared.

‘Ah! — who —? — you?’ he said, and took him by the arm and pressed him on along the gravel. ‘Dacier, are you? Redworth’s in there. Come on a step, come! It’s the time for us to pray. Good God! There’s mercy for sinners. If ever there was a man! . . . But, oh, good God! she’s in their hands this minute. My saint is under the knife.’

Dacier was hurried forward by a powerful hand. ‘They say it lasts about five minutes, four and a half — or more! My God! When they turned me out of her room, she smiled to keep me calm. She said: “Dear husband”: the veriest wretch and brutallest husband ever poor woman . . . and a saint! a saint on earth! Emmy!’ Tears burst from him.

He pulled forth his watch and asked Dacier for the time.

‘A minute’s gone in a minute. It’s three minutes and a half. Come faster. They’re at their work! It’s life or death. I’ve had death about me. But for a woman! and your wife! and that brave soul! She bears it so. Women are the bravest creatures afloat. If they make her shriek, it’ll be only if she thinks I ‘m out of hearing. No: I see her. She bears it! — They mayn’t have begun yet. It may all be over! Come into the wood. I must pray. I must go on my knees.’

Two or three steps in the wood, at the mossed roots of a beech, he fell kneeling, muttering, exclaiming.

The tempest of penitence closed with a blind look at his watch, which he left dangling. He had to talk to drug his thoughts.

‘And mind you,’ said he, when he had rejoined Dacier and was pushing his arm again, rounding beneath the trees to a view of the house, ‘for a man steeped in damnable iniquity! She bears it all for me, because I begged her, for the chance of her living. It’s my doing — this knife! Macpherson swears there is a chance. Thomson backs him. But they’re at her, cutting! . . . The pain must be awful — the mere pain! The gentlest creature ever drew breath! And women fear blood — and her own! And a head! She ought to have married the best man alive, not a —! I can’t remember her once complaining of me — not once. A common donkey compared to her! All I can do is to pray. And she knows the beast I am, and has forgiven me. There isn’t a blessed text of Scripture that doesn’t cry out in praise of her. And they cut and hack . . .!’ He dropped his head. The vehement big man heaved, shuddering. His lips worked fast.

‘She is not alone with them, unsupported?’ said Dacier.

Sir Lukin moaned for relief. He caught his watch swinging and stared at it. ‘What a good fellow you were to come! Now ‘s the time to know your friends. There’s Diana Warwick, true as steel. Redworth came on her tiptoe for the Continent; he had only to mention . . . Emmy wanted to spare her. She would not have sent — wanted to spare her the sight. I offered to stand by . . . Chased me out. Diana Warwick’s there:— worth fifty of me! Dacier, I’ve had my sword-blade tried by Indian horsemen, and I know what true as steel means. She’s there. And I know she shrinks from the sight of blood. My oath on it, she won’t quiver a muscle! Next to my wife, you may take my word for it, Dacier, Diana Warwick is the pick of living women. I could prove it. They go together. I could prove it over and over. She ‘s the loyallest woman anywhere. Her one error was that marriage of hers, and how she ever pitched herself into it, none of us can guess.’ After a while, he said: ‘Look at your watch.’

‘Nearly twenty minutes gone.’

‘Are they afraid to send out word? It’s that window!’ He covered his eyes, and muttered, sighed. He became abruptly composed in appearance. ‘The worst of a black sheep like me is, I’m such an infernal sinner, that Providence! . . . But both surgeons gave me their word of honour that there was a chance. A chance! But it’s the end of me if Emmy. . . . Good God! no! the knife’s enough; don’t let her be killed! It would be murder. Here am I talking! I ought to be praying. I should have sent for the parson to help me; I can’t get the proper words — bellow like a rascal trooper strung up for the cat. It must be twenty-five minutes now. Who’s alive now!’

Dacier thought of the Persian Queen crying for news of the slaughtered, with her mind on her lord and husband: ‘Who is not dead?’ Diana exalted poets, and here was an example of the truth of one to nature, and of the poor husband’s depth of feeling. They said not the same thing, but it was the same cry de profundis.

He saw Redworth coming at a quick pace.

Redworth raised his hand. Sir Lukin stopped. ‘He’s waving!’

‘It’s good,’ said Dacier.

‘Speak! are you sure?’

‘I judge by the look.’

Redworth stepped unfalteringly.

‘It’s over, all well,’ he said. He brushed his forehead and looked sharply cheerful.

‘My dear fellow! my dear fellow!’ Sir Lukin grasped his hand. ‘It’s more than I deserve. Over? She has borne it! She would have gone to heaven and left me!

Is she safe?’

‘Doing well.’

‘Have you seen the surgeons?’

‘Mrs. Warwick.’

‘What did she say?’

‘A nod of the head.’

‘You saw her?’

‘She came to the stairs.’

‘Diana Warwick never lies. She wouldn’t lie, not with a nod! They’ve saved Emmy — do you think?’

‘It looks well.’

My girl has passed the worst of it?’

‘That’s over.’

Sir Lukin gazed glassily. The necessity of his agony was to lean to the belief, at a beckoning, that Providence pardoned him, in tenderness for what would have been his loss. He realized it, and experienced a sudden calm: testifying to the positive pardon.

‘Now, look here, you two fellows, listen half a moment,’ he addressed Redworth and Dacier; ‘I’ve been the biggest scoundrel of a husband unhung, and married to a saint; and if she’s only saved to me; I’ll swear to serve her faithfully, or may a thunderbolt knock me to perdition! and thank God for his justice! Prayers are answered, mind you, though a fellow may be as black as a sweep. Take a warning from me. I’ve had my lesson.’

Dacier soon after talked of going. The hope of seeing Diana had abandoned him, the desire was almost extinct.

Sir Lukin could not let him go. He yearned to preach to him or any one from his personal text of the sinner honourably remorseful on account of and notwithstanding the forgiveness of Providence, and he implored Dacier and Redworth by turns to be careful when they married of how they behaved to — the sainted women their wives; never to lend ear to the devil, nor to believe, as he had done, that there is no such thing as a devil, for he had been the victim of him, and he knew. The devil, he loudly proclaimed, has a multiplicity of lures, and none more deadly than when he baits with a petticoat. He had been hooked, and had found the devil in person. He begged them urgently to keep his example in memory. By following this and that wildfire he had stuck himself in a bog — a common result with those who would not see the devil at work upon them; and it required his dear suffering saint to be at death’s doors, cut to pieces and gasping, to open his eyes. But, thank heaven, they were opened at last! Now he saw the beast he was: a filthy beast! unworthy of tying his wife’s shoestring. No confessions could expose to them the beast he was. But let them not fancy there was no such thing as an active DEVIL about the world.

Redworth divined that the simply sensational man abased himself before Providence and heaped his gratitude on the awful Power in order to render it difficult for the promise of the safety of his wife to be withdrawn.

He said: ‘There is good hope’; and drew an admonition upon himself.

‘Ah! my dear good Redworth,’ Sir Lukin sighed from his elevation of outspoken penitence: ‘you will see as I do some day. It is the devil, think as you like of it. When you have pulled down all the Institutions of the Country, what do you expect but ruins? That Radicalism of yours has its day. You have to go through a wrestle like mine to understand it. You say, the day is fine, let’s have our game. Old England pays for it! Then you’ll find how you love the old land of your birth — the noblest ever called a nation! — with your Corn Law Repeals! — eh, Dacier? — You’ll own it was the devil tempted you. I hear you apologizing. Pray God, it mayn’t be too late!’

He looked up at the windows. ‘She may be sinking!’

‘Have no fears,’ Redworth said; ‘Mrs. Warwick would send for you.’

‘She would. Diana Warwick would be sure to send. Next to my wife, Diana Warwick’s . . . she’d send, never fear. I dread that room. I’d rather go through a regiment of sabres — though it ‘s over now. And Diana Warwick stood it. The worst is over, you told me. By heaven! women are wonderful creatures. But she hasn’t a peer for courage. I could trust her — most extraordinary thing; that marriage of hers! — not a soul has ever been able to explain it:— trust her to the death.’

Redworth left them, and Sir Lukin ejaculated on the merits of Diana Warwick to Dacier. He laughed scornfully: ‘And that’s the woman the world attacks for want of virtue! Why, a fellow hasn’t a chance with her, not a chance. She comes out in blazing armour if you unmask a battery. I don’t know how it might be if she were in love with a fellow. I doubt her thinking men worth the trouble. I never met the man. But if she were to take fire, Troy ‘d be nothing to it. I wonder whether we might go in: I dread the house.’

Dacier spoke of departing.

‘No, no, wait,’ Sir Lukin begged him. ‘I was talking about women. They are the devil — or he makes most use of them: and you must learn to see the cloven foot under their petticoats, if you’re to escape them. There’s no protection in being in love with your wife; I married for love; I am, I always have been, in love with her; and I went to the deuce. The music struck up and away I waltzed. A woman like Diana Warwick might keep a fellow straight, because she,‘s all round you; she’s man and woman in brains; and legged like a deer, and breasted like a swan, and a regular sheaf of arrows — in her eyes. Dark women — ah! But she has a contempt for us, you know. That’s the secret of her. — Redworth ‘s at the door. Bad? Is it bad? I never was particularly fond of that house — hated it. I love it now for Emmy’s sake. I couldn’t live in another — though I should be haunted. Rather her ghost than nothing — though I’m an infernal coward about the next world. But if you’re right with religion you needn’t fear. What I can’t comprehend in Redworth is his Radicalism, and getting richer and richer.’

‘It’s not a vow of poverty,’ said Dacier.

‘He’ll find they don’t coalesce, or his children will. Once the masses are uppermost! It’s a bad day, Dacier, when we’ve no more gentlemen in the land. Emmy backs him, so I hold my tongue. To-morrow’s a Sunday. I wish you were staying here; I ‘d take you to church with me-we shirk it when we haven’t a care. It couldn’t do you harm. I’ve heard capital sermons. I’ve always had the good habit of going to church, Dacier. Now ‘s the time for remembering them. Ah, my dear fellow, I ‘m not a parson. It would have been better for me if I had been.’

And for you too! his look added plainly. He longed to preach; he was impelled to chatter.

Redworth reported the patient perfectly quiet, breathing calmly.

‘Laudanum?’ asked Sir Lukin. ‘Now there’s a poison we’ve got to bless! And we set up in our wisdom for knowing what is good for us!’

He had talked his hearers into a stupefied assent to anything he uttered.

‘Mrs. Warwick would like to see you in two or three minutes; she will come down,’ Redworth said to Dacier.

‘That looks well, eh? That looks bravely,’ Sir Lukin cried. ‘Diana, Warwick wouldn’t leave the room without a certainty. I dread the look of those men; I shall have to shake their hands! And so I do, with all my heart: only — But God bless them! But we must go in, if she’s coming down.’

They entered the house, and sat in the drawing-room, where Sir Lukin took up from the table one of his wife’s Latin books, a Persius, bearing her marginal notes. He dropped his head on it, with sobs.

The voice of Diana recalled him to the present. She counselled him to control himself; in that case he might for one moment go to the chamber-door and assure himself by the silence that his wife was resting. She brought permission from the surgeons and doctor, on his promise to be still.

Redworth supported Sir Lukin tottering out.

Dacier had risen. He was petrified by Diana’s face, and thought of her as whirled from him in a storm, bearing the marks of it. Her underlip hung for short breaths; the big drops of her recent anguish still gathered on her brows; her eyes were tearless, lustreless; she looked ancient in youth, and distant by a century, like a tall woman of the vaults, issuing white-ringed, not of our light.

She shut her mouth for strength to speak to him.

He said: ‘You are not ill? You are strong?’

‘I? Oh, strong. I will sit. I cannot be absent longer than two minutes. The trial of her strength is to come. If it were courage, we might be sure. The day is fine?’

‘A perfect August day.’

‘I held her through it. I am thankful to heaven it was no other hand than mine. She wished to spare me. She was glad of her Tony when the time came. I thought I was a coward — I could have changed with her to save her; I am a strong woman, fit to submit to that work. I should not have borne it as she did. She expected to sink under it. All her dispositions were made for death-bequests to servants and to . . . to friends: every secret liking they had, thought of!’

Diana clenched her hands.

‘I hope!’ Dacier said.

‘You shall hear regularly. Call at Sir William’s house tomorrow. He sleeps here to-night. The suspense must last for days. It is a question of vital power to bear the shock. She has a mind so like a flying spirit that, just before the moment, she made Mr. Lanyan Thomson smile by quoting some saying of her Tony’s.’

‘Try by-and-by to recollect it,’ said Dacier.

‘And you were with that poor man! How did he pass the terrible time? I pitied him.’

‘He suffered; he prayed.’

‘It was the best he could do. Mr. Redworth was as he always is at the trial, a pillar. Happy the friend who knows him for one! He never thinks of himself in a crisis. He is sheer strength to comfort and aid. They will drive you to the station with Mr. Thomson. He returns to relieve Sir William tomorrow. I have learnt to admire the men of the knife! No profession equals theirs in self-command and beneficence. Dr. Bridgenorth is permanent here.’

‘I have a fly, and go back immediately,’ said Dacier.

‘She shall hear of your coming. Adieu.’

Diana gave him her hand. It was gently pressed.

A wonderment at the utter change of circumstances took Dacier passingly at the sight of her vanishing figure.

He left the house, feeling he dared have no personal wishes. It had ceased to be the lover’s hypocrisy with him.

The crisis of mortal peril in that house enveloped its inmates, and so wrought in him as to enshroud the stripped outcrying husband, of whom he had no clear recollection, save of the man’s agony. The two women, striving against death, devoted in friendship, were the sole living images he brought away; they were a new vision of the world and our life.

He hoped with Diana, bled with her. She rose above him high, beyond his transient human claims. He envied Redworth the common friendly right to be near her. In reflection, long after, her simplicity of speech, washed pure of the blood-emotions, for token of her great nature, during those two minutes of their sitting together, was, dearer, sweeter to the lover than if she had shown by touch or word that a faint allusion to their severance was in her mind; and this despite a certain vacancy it created.

He received formal information of Lady Dunstane’s progress to convalescence. By degrees the simply official tone of Diana’s letters combined with the ceasing of them and the absence of her personal charm to make a gentleman not remarkable for violence in the passion so calmly reasonable as to think the dangerous presence best avoided for a time. Subject to fits of the passion, he certainly was, but his position in the world was a counselling spouse, jealous of his good name. He did not regret his proposal to take the leap; he would not have regretted it if taken. On the safe side of the abyss, however, it wore a gruesome look to his cool blood.

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