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

Chapter 28

Dialogue Round the Subject of a Portrait, with Some Indications of the Task for Diana

An enamoured Egeria who is not a princess in her worldly state nor a goddess by origin has to play one of those parts which strain the woman’s faculties past naturalness. She must never expose her feelings to her lover; she must make her counsel weighty — otherwise she is little his nymph of the pure wells, and what she soon may be, the world will say. She has also, most imperatively, to dazzle him without the betrayal of artifice, where simple spontaneousness is beyond conjuring. But feelings that are constrained becloud the judgement besides arresting the fine jet of delivery wherewith the mastered lover is taught through his ears to think himself prompted, and submit to be controlled, by a creature super-feminine. She must make her counsel so weighty in poignant praises as to repress impulses that would rouse her own; and her betraying impulsiveness was a subject of reflection to Diana after she had given Percy Dacier, metaphorically, the key of her house. Only as true Egeria could she receive him. She was therefore grateful, she thanked and venerated this noblest of lovers for his not pressing to the word of love, and so strengthening her to point his mind, freshen his moral energies and inspirit him. His chivalrous acceptance of the conditions of their renewed intimacy was a radiant knightliness to Diana, elevating her with a living image for worship:— he so near once to being the absolute lord of her destinies! How to reward him, was her sole dangerous thought. She prayed and strove that she might give him of her best, to practically help him; and she had reason to suppose she could do it, from the visible effect of her phrases. He glistened in repeating them; he had fallen into the habit; before witnesses too; in the presence of Miss Paynham, who had taken earnestly to the art of painting, and obtained her dear Mrs. Warwick’s promise of a few sittings for the sketch of a portrait, near the close of the season. ‘A very daring thing to attempt,’ Miss Paynham said, when he was comparing her first outlines and the beautiful breathing features. ‘Even if one gets the face, the lips will seem speechless, to those who know her.’

‘If they have no recollection,’ said Dacier.

‘I mean, the endeavour should be to represent them at the moment of speaking.’

‘Put it into the eyes.’ He looked at the eyes.

She looked at the mouth. ‘But it is the mouth, more than the eyes.’

He looked at the face. ‘Where there is character, you have only to study it to be sure of a likeness.’

‘That is the task, with one who utters jewels, Mr. Dacier.’

‘Bright wit, I fear, is above the powers of your art.’

‘Still I feel it could be done. See — now — that!’

Diana’s lips had opened to say: ‘Confess me a model model: I am dissected while I sit for portrayal. I must be for a moment like the frog of the two countrymen who were disputing as to the manner of his death, when he stretched to yawn, upon which they agreed that he had defeated the truth for both of them. I am not quite inanimate.’

‘Irish countrymen,’ said Dacier.

‘The story adds, that blows were arrested; so confer the nationality as you please.’

Diana had often to divert him from a too intent perusal of her features with sparkles and stories current or invented to serve the immediate purpose.

Miss Paynham was Mrs. Warwick’s guest for a fortnight, and observed them together. She sometimes charitably laid down her pencil and left them, having forgotten this or that. They were conversing of general matters with their usual crisp precision on her return, and she was rather like the two countrymen, in debating whether it was excess of coolness or discreetness; though she was convinced of their inclinations, and expected love some day to be leaping up. Diana noticed that she had no reminder for leaving the room when it was Mr. Redworth present. These two had become very friendly, according to her hopes; and Miss Paynham was extremely solicitous to draw suggestions from Mr. Redworth and win his approval.

‘Do I appear likely to catch the mouth now, do you think, Mr. Redworth?’

He remarked, smiling at Diana’s expressive dimple, that the mouth was difficult to catch. He did not gaze intently. Mr. Redworth was the genius of friendship, ‘the friend of women,’ Mrs. Warwick had said of him. Miss Paynham discovered it, as regarded herself. The portrait was his commission to her, kindly proposed, secretly of course, to give her occupation and the chance of winning a vogue with the face of a famous Beauty. So many, however, were Mrs. Warwick’s visitors, and so lively the chatter she directed, that accurate sketching was difficult to an amateurish hand. Whitmonby, Sullivan Smith, Westlake, Henry Wilmers, Arthur Rhodes, and other gentlemen, literary and military, were almost daily visitors when it became known that the tedium of the beautiful sitter required beguiling and there was a certainty of finding her at home. On Mrs. Warwick’s Wednesday numerous ladies decorated the group. Then was heard such a rillet of dialogue without scandal or politics, as nowhere else in Britain; all vowed it subsequently; for to the remembrance it seemed magical. Not a breath of scandal, and yet the liveliest flow. Lady Pennon came attended by a Mr. Alexander Hepburn, a handsome Scot, at whom Dacier shot one of his instinctive keen glances, before seeing that the hostess had mounted a transient colour. Mr. Hepburn, in settling himself on his chair rather too briskly, contrived the next minute to break a precious bit of China standing by his elbow; and Lady Pennon cried out, with sympathetic anguish: ‘Oh, my dear, what a trial for you!’

‘Brittle is foredoomed,’ said Diana, unruffled.

She deserved compliments, and would have had them if she had not wounded the most jealous and petulant of her courtiers.

‘Then the Turk is a sapient custodian!’ said Westlake, vexed with her flush at the entrance of the Scot.

Diana sedately took his challenge. ‘We, Mr. Westlake, have the philosophy of ownership.’

Mr. Hepburn penitentially knelt to pick up the fragments, and Westlake murmured over his head: ‘As long as it is we who are the cracked.’

‘Did we not start from China?’

‘We were consequently precipitated to Stamboul.’

‘You try to elude the lesson.’

‘I remember my first paedagogue telling me so when he rapped the book on my cranium.’

‘The mark of the book is not a disfigurement.’

It was gently worded, and the shrewder for it. The mark of the book, if not a disfigurement, was a characteristic of Westlake’s fashion of speech. Whitmonby nodded twice, for signification of a palpable hit in that bout; and he noted within him the foolishness of obtruding the remotest allusion to our personality when crossing the foils with a woman. She is down on it like the lightning, quick as she is in her contracted circle, politeness guarding her from a riposte.

Mr. Hepburn apologized very humbly, after regaining his chair. Diana smiled and said: ‘Incidents in a drawing-room are prize-shots at Dulness.’

‘And in a dining-room too,’ added Sullivan Smith. ‘I was one day at a dinner-party, apparently of undertakers hired to mourn over the joints and the birds in the dishes, when the ceiling came down, and we all sprang up merry as crickets. It led to a pretty encounter and a real prize-shot.’

‘Does that signify a duel?’ asked Lady Pennon.

”Twould be the vulgar title, to bring it into discredit with the populace, my lady.’

‘Rank me one of the populace then! I hate duelling and rejoice that it is discountenanced.’

‘The citizens, and not the populace, I think Mr. Sullivan Smith means,’ Diana said. ‘The citizen is generally right in morals. My father also was against the practice, when it raged at its “prettiest.” I have heard him relate a story of a poor friend of his, who had to march out for a trifle, and said, as he accepted the invitation, “It’s all nonsense!” and walking to the measured length, “It’s all nonsense, you know!” and when lying on the ground, at his last gasp, “I told you it was all nonsense!”’

Sullivan Smith leaned over to Whitmonby and Dacier amid the ejaculations, and whispered: ‘A lady’s way of telling the story! — and excuseable to her:— she had to Jonah the adjective. What the poor fellow said was —’ He murmured the sixty-pounder adjective, as in the belly of the whale, to rightly emphasize his noun.

Whitmonby nodded to the superior relish imparted by the vigour of masculine veracity in narration. ‘A story for its native sauce piquante,’ he said.

‘Nothing without it!’

They had each a dissolving grain of contempt for women compelled by their delicacy to spoil that kind of story which demands the piquant accompaniment to flavour it racily and make it passable. For to see insipid mildness complacently swallowed as an excellent thing, knowing the rich smack of savour proper to the story, is your anecdotal gentleman’s annoyance. But if the anecdote had supported him, Sullivan Smith would have let the expletive rest.

Major Carew Mahoney capped Mrs. Warwick’s tale of the unfortunate duellist with another, that confessed the practice absurd, though he approved of it; and he cited Lord Larrian’s opinion: ‘It keeps men braced to civil conduct.’

‘I would not differ with the dear old lord; but no! the pistol is the sceptre of the bully,’ said Diana.

Mr. Hepburn, with the widest of eyes on her in perpetuity, warmly agreed; and the man was notorious among men for his contrary action.

‘Most righteously our Princess Egeria distinguishes her reign by prohibiting it,’ said Lady Singleby.

‘And how,’ Sullivan Smith sighed heavily, ‘how, I’d ask, are ladies to be protected from the bully?’

He was beset: ‘So it was all for us? all in consideration for our benefit?’

He mournfully exclaimed: ‘Why, surely!’

‘That is the funeral apology of the Rod, at the close of every barbarous chapter,’ said Diana.

‘Too fine in mind, too fat in body; that is a consequence with men, dear madam. The conqueror stands to his weapons, or he loses his possessions.’

‘Mr. Sullivan Smith jumps at his pleasure from the special to the general, and will be back, if we follow him, Lady Pennon. It is the trick men charge to women, showing that they can resemble us.’

Lady Pennon thumped her knee. ‘Not a bit. There’s no resemblance, and they know nothing of us.’

‘Women are a blank to them, I believe,’ said Whitmonby, treacherously bowing; — and Westlake said:

‘Traces of a singular scrawl have been observed when they were held in close proximity to the fire.’

‘Once, on the top of a coach,’ Whitmonby resumed, ‘I heard a comely dame of the period when summers are ceasing threatened by her husband with a divorce, for omitting to put sandwiches in their luncheon-basket. She made him the inscrutable answer: “Ah, poor man! you will go down ignorant to your grave!” We laughed, and to this day I cannot tell you why.’

‘That laugh was from a basket lacking provision; and I think we could trace our separation to it,’ Diana said to Lady Pennon, who replied: ‘They expose themselves; they get no nearer to the riddle.’

Miss Courtney, a rising young actress, encouraged by a smile from Mrs. Warwick, remarked: ‘On the stage, we have each our parts equally.’

‘And speaking parts; not personae mutae.’

‘The stage has advanced in verisimilitude,’ Henry Wilmers added slyly; and Diana rejoined: ‘You recognize a verisimilitude of the mirror when it is in advance of reality. Flatter the sketch, Miss Paynham, for a likeness to be seen. Probably there are still Old Conservatives who would prefer the personation of us by boys.’

‘I don’t know,’ Westlake affected dubiousness. ‘I have heard that a step to the riddle is gained by a serious contemplation of boys.’

‘Serious?’

‘That is the doubt.’

‘The doubt throws its light on the step!’

‘I advise them not to take any leap from their step,’ said Lady Pennon.

‘It would be a way of learning that we are no wiser than our sires; but perhaps too painful a way,’ Whitmonby observed. ‘Poor Mountford Wilts boasted of knowing women; and — he married. To jump into the mouth of the enigma, is not to read it.’

‘You are figures of conceit when you speculate on us, Mr. Whitmonby.’

‘An occupation of our leisure, my lady, for your amusement.’

‘The leisure of the humming-top, a thousand to the minute, with the pretence that it sleeps!’ Diana said.

‘The sacrilegious hand to strip you of your mystery is withered as it stretches,’ exclaimed Westlake. ‘The sage and the devout are in accord for once.’

‘And whichever of the two I may be, I’m one of them, happy to do my homage blindfold!’ Sullivan Smith waved the sign of it.

Diana sent her eyes over him and Mr. Hepburn, seeing Dacier. ‘That rosy mediaevalism seems the utmost we can expect.’ An instant she saddened, foreboding her words to be ominous, because of suddenly thirsting for a modern cry from him, the silent. She quitted her woman’s fit of earnestness, and took to the humour that pleased him. ‘Aslauga’s knight, at his blind man’s buff of devotion, catches the hem of the tapestry and is found by his lady kissing it in a trance of homage five hours long! Sir Hilary of Agincourt, returned from the wars to his castle at midnight, hears that the chitellaine is away dancing, and remains with all his men mounted in the courtyard till the grey morn brings her back! Adorable! We had a flag flying in those days. Since men began to fret the riddle, they have hauled it down half-mast. Soon we shall behold a bare pole and hats on around it. That is their solution.’

A smile circled at the hearing of Lady Singleby say: ‘Well, I am all for our own times, however literal the men.’

‘We are two different species!’ thumped Lady Pennon, swimming on the theme. ‘I am sure, I read what they write of women! And their heroines!’

Lady Esquart acquiesced: ‘We are utter fools or horrid knaves.’

‘Nature’s original hieroglyphs — which have that appearance to the peruser,’ Westlake assented.

‘And when they would decipher us, and they hit on one of our “arts,” the literary pirouette they perform is memorable.’ Diana looked invitingly at Dacier. ‘But I for one discern a possible relationship and a likeness.’

‘I think it exists — behind a curtain,’ Dacier replied.

‘Before the era of the Nursery. Liberty to grow; independence is the key of the secret.’

‘And what comes after the independence?’ he inquired.

Whitmonby, musing that some distraction of an earnest incentive spoilt Mrs. Warwick’s wit, informed him: ‘The two different species then break their shallow armistice and join the shock of battle for possession of the earth, and we are outnumbered and exterminated, to a certainty. So I am against independence.’

‘Socially a Mussulman, subject to explosions!’ Diana said. ‘So the eternal duel between us is maintained, and men will protest that they are for civilization. Dear me, I should like to write a sketch of the women of the future — don’t be afraid! — the far future. What a different earth you will see!’

And very different creatures! the gentlemen unanimously surmised. Westlake described the fairer portion, no longer the weaker; frightful hosts.

Diana promised him a sweeter picture, if ever she brought her hand to paint it.

‘You would be offered up to the English national hangman, Jehoiachim Sneer,’ interposed Arthur Rhodes, evidently firing a gun too big for him, of premeditated charging, as his patroness perceived; but she knew him to be smarting under recent applications of the swish of Mr. Sneer, and that he rushed to support her. She covered him by saying: ‘If he has to be encountered, he kills none but the cripple,’ wherewith the dead pause ensuing from a dose of outlandish speech in good company was bridged, though the youth heard Westlake mutter unpleasantly: ‘Jehoiachim,’ and had to endure a stare of Dacier’s, who did not conceal his want of comprehension of the place he occupied in Mrs. Warwick’s gatherings.

‘They know nothing of us whatever!’ Lady Pennon harped on her dictum.

‘They put us in a case and profoundly study the captive creature,’ said Diana: ‘but would any man understand this . . .?’ She dropped her voice and drew in the heads of Lady Pennon, Lady Singleby, Lady Esquart and Miss Courtney: ‘Real woman’s nature speaks. A maid of mine had a “follower.” She was a good girl; I was anxious about her and asked her if she could trust him. “Oh, yes, ma’am,” she replied, “I can; he’s quite like a female.” I longed to see the young man, to tell him he had received the highest of eulogies.’

The ladies appreciatingly declared that such a tale was beyond the understandings of men. Miss Paynham primmed her mouth, admitting to herself her inability to repeat such a tale; an act that she deemed not ‘quite like a lady.’ She had previously come to the conclusion that Mrs. Warwick, with all her generous qualities, was deficient in delicate sentiment — owing perhaps to her coldness of temperament. Like Dacier also, she failed to comprehend the patronage of Mr. Rhodes: it led to suppositions; indefinite truly, and not calumnious at all; but a young poet, rather good-looking and well built, is not the same kind of wing-chick as a young actress, like Miss Courtney — Mrs. Warwick’s latest shieldling: he is hardly enrolled for the reason that was assumed to sanction Mrs. Warwick’s maid in the encouragement of her follower. Miss Paynham sketched on, with her thoughts in her bosom: a damsel castigatingly pursued by the idea of sex as the direct motive of every act of every person surrounding, her; deductively therefore that a certain form of the impelling passion, mild or terrible, or capricious, or it might be less pardonable, was unceasingly at work among the human couples up to decrepitude. And she too frequently hit the fact to doubt her gift of reading into them. Mr. Dacier was plain, and the state of young Mr. Rhodes; and the Scottish gentleman was at least a vehement admirer. But she penetrated the breast of Mr. Thomas Redworth as well, mentally tore his mask of friendship to shreds. He was kind indeed in commissioning her to do the portrait. His desire for it, and his urgency to have the features exactly given, besides the infrequency of his visits of late, when a favoured gentleman was present, were the betraying signs. Deductively, moreover, the lady who inspired the passion in numbers of gentlemen and set herself to win their admiration with her lively play of dialogue, must be coquettish; she could hold them only by coldness. Anecdotes, epigrams, drolleries, do not bubble to the lips of a woman who is under an emotional spell: rather they prove that she has the spell for casting. It suited Mr. Dacier, Miss Paynham thought: it was cruel to Mr. Redworth; at whom, of all her circle, the beautiful woman looked, when speaking to him, sometimes tenderly.

‘Beware the silent one of an assembly!’ Diana had written. She did not think of her words while Miss Paynham continued mutely sketching. The silent ones, with much conversation around them, have their heads at work, critically perforce; the faster if their hands are occupied; and the point they lean to do is the pivot of their thoughts. Miss Paynham felt for Mr. Redworth.

Diana was unaware of any other critic present than him she sought to enliven, not unsuccessfully, notwithstanding his English objection to the pitch of the converse she led, and a suspicion of effort to support it:— just a doubt, with all her easy voluble run, of the possibility of naturalness in a continuous cleverness. But he signified pleasure, and in pleasing him she was happy: in the knowledge that she dazzled, was her sense of safety. Percy hated scandal; he heard none. He wanted stirring, cheering; in her house he had it. He came daily, and as it was her wish that new themes, new flights of converse, should delight him and show her exhaustless, to preserve her ascendancy, she welcomed him without consulting the world. He was witness of Mr. Hepburn’s presentation of a costly China vase, to repair the breach in her array of ornaments, and excuse a visit. Judging by the absence of any blow within, he saw not a sign of coquettry. Some such visit had been anticipated by the prescient woman, so there was no reddening. She brought about an exchange of sentences between him and her furious admirer, sparing either of them a glimpse of which was the sacrifice to the other, amusing them both. Dacier could allow Mr. Hepburn to outsit him; and he left them, proud of his absolute confidence in her.

She was mistaken in imagining that her social vivacity, mixed with comradeship of the active intellect, was the charm which kept Mr. Percy Dacier temperate when he well knew her to distinguish him above her courtiers. Her powers of dazzling kept him tame; they did not stamp her mark on him. He was one of the order of highly polished men, ignorant of women, who are impressed for long terms by temporary flashes, that hold them bound until a fresh impression comes, to confirm or obliterate the preceding. Affairs of the world he could treat competently; he had a head for high politics and the management of men; the feminine half of the world was a confusion and a vexation to his intelligence, characterless; and one woman at last appearing decipherable, he fancied it must be owing to her possession of character, a thing prized the more in women because of his latent doubt of its existence. Character, that was the mark he aimed at; that moved him to homage as neither sparkling wit nor incomparable beauty, nor the unusual combination, did. To be distinguished by a woman of character (beauty and wit for jewellery), was his minor ambition in life, and if Fortune now gratified it, he owned to the flattery. It really seemed by every test that she had the quality. Since the day when he beheld her by the bedside of his dead uncle, and that one on the French sea-sands, and again at Copsley, ghostly white out of her wrestle with death, bleeding holy sweat of brow for her friend, the print of her features had been on him as an index of depth of character, imposing respect and admiration — a sentiment imperilled by her consent to fly with him. Her subsequent reserve until they met — by an accident that the lady at any rate was not responsible for, proved the quality positively. And the nature of her character, at first suspected, vanquished him more, by comparison, than her vivid intellect, which he originally, and still lingeringly, appreciated in condescension, as a singular accomplishment, thrilling at times, now and then assailably feminine. But, after her consent to a proposal that caused him retrospective worldly shudders, and her composed recognition of the madness, a character capable of holding him in some awe was real majesty, and it rose to the clear heights, with her mental attributes for satellites. His tendency to despise women was wholesomely checked by the experience to justify him in saying, Here is a worthy one! She was health to him, as well as trusty counsel. Furthermore, where he respected, he was a governed man, free of the common masculine craze to scale fortresses for the sake of lowering flags. Whilst under his impression of her character, he submitted honourably to the ascendancy of a lady whose conduct suited him and whose preference flattered; whose presence was very refreshing; whose letters were a stimulant. Her letters were really running well-waters, not a lover’s delusion of the luminous mind of his lady. They sparkled in review and preserved their integrity under critical analysis. The reading of them hurried him in pursuit of her from house to house during the autumn; and as she did not hint at the shadow his coming cast on her, his conscience was easy. Regarding their future, his political anxieties were a mountainous defile, curtaining the outlook. They met at Lockton, where he arrived after a recent consultation with his Chief, of whom, and the murmurs of the Cabinet, he spoke to Diana openly, in some dejection.

‘They might see he has been breaking with his party for the last four years,’ she said. ‘The plunge to be taken is tremendous.’

‘But will he? He appears too despondent for a header.’

‘We cannot dance on a quaking floor.’

‘No; it ‘s exactly that quake of the floor which gives “much qualms,” to me as well,’ said Dacier.

‘A treble Neptune’s power!’ she rejoined, for his particular delectation. ‘Enough if he hesitates. I forgive him his nausea. He awaits the impetus, and it will reach him, and soon. He will not wait for the mob at his heels, I am certain. A Minister who does that, is a post, and goes down with the first bursting of the dam. He has tried compromise and discovered that it does not appease the Fates; is not even a makeshift-mending at this hour. He is a man of nerves, very sensitively built; as quick — quicker than a woman, I could almost say, to feel the tremble of the air-forerunner of imperative changes.’

Dacier brightened fondly. ‘You positively describe him; paint him to the life, without knowing him!’

‘I have seen him; and if I paint, whose are the colours?’

‘Sometimes I repeat you to him, and I get all the credit,’ said Dacier.

‘I glow with pride to think of speaking anything that you repeat,’ said Diana, and her eyes were proudly lustreful.

Their love was nourished on these mutual flatteries. Thin food for passion! The innocence of it sanctioned the meetings and the appointments to meet. When separated they were interchanging letters, formally worded in the apostrophe and the termination, but throbbingly full: or Diana thought so of Percy’s letters, with grateful justice; for his manner of opening his heart in amatory correspondence was to confide important, secret matters, up to which mark she sprang to reply in counsel. He proved his affection by trusting her; his respect by his tempered style: ‘A Greenland style of writing,’ she had said of an unhappy gentleman’s epistolary compositions resembling it; and now the same official baldness was to her mind Italianly rich; it called forth such volumes.

Flatteries that were thin food for passion appeared the simplest exchanges of courtesy, and her meetings with her lover, judging by the nature of the discourse they held, so, consequent to their joint interest in the great crisis anticipated, as to rouse her indignant surprise and a turn for downright rebellion when the Argus world signified the fact of its having one eye, or more, wide open.

Debit and Credit, too, her buzzing familiars, insisted on an audience at each ear, and at the house-door, on her return to London.

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