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

Chapter 29

Shows the Approaches of the Political and the Domestic Crisis in Company

There was not much talk of Diana between Lady Dunstane and her customary visitor Tom Redworth now. She was shy in speaking of the love-stricken woman, and more was in his mind for thought than for speech. She some times wondered how much he might know, ending with the reflection that little passing around was unknown to him. He had to shut his mind against thought, against all meditation upon Mrs. Warwick; it was based scientifically when speculating and calculating, on the material element — a talisman. Men and women crossing the high seas of life he had found most readable under that illuminating inquiry, as to their means. An inspector of sea worthy ships proceeds in like manner. Whence would the money come? He could not help the bent of his mind; but he could avoid subjecting her to the talismanic touch. The girl at the Dublin Ball, the woman at the fire-grate of The Crossways, both in one were his Diana. Now and then, hearing an ugly whisper, his manful sympathy with the mere woman in her imprisoned liberty, defended her desperately from charges not distinctly formulated within him:—‘She’s not made of stone.’ That was a height of self-abnegation to shake the poor fellow to his roots; but, then, he had no hopes of his own; and he stuck to it. Her choice of a man like Dacier, too, of whom Redworth judged highly, showed nobility. She irradiated the man; but no baseness could be in such an alliance. If allied, they were bound together for good. The tie — supposing a villain world not wrong — was only not the sacred tie because of impediments. The tie! — he deliberated, and said stoutly — No. Men of Redworth’s nature go through sharp contests, though the duration of them is short, and the tussle of his worship of this woman with the materialistic turn of his mind was closed by the complete shutting up of the latter under lock and bar; so that a man, very little of an idealist, was able to sustain her in the pure imagination — where she did almost belong to him. She was his, in a sense, because she might have been his — but for an incredible extreme of folly. The dark ring of the eclipse cast by some amazing foolishness round the shining crescent perpetually in secret claimed the whole sphere of her, by what might have been, while admitting her lost to him in fact. To Thomas Redworth’s mind the lack of perfect sanity in his conduct at any period of manhood, was so entirely past belief that he flew at the circumstances confirming the charge, and had wrestles with the angel of reality, who did but set him dreaming backward, after flinging him.

He heard at Lady Wathin’s that Mrs. Warwick was in town for the winter. ‘Mr. Dacier is also in town,’ Lady Wathin said, with an acid indication of the needless mention of it. ‘We have not seen him.’ She invited Redworth to meet a few friends at dinner. ‘I think you admire Miss Asper: in my idea a very saint among young women; — and you know what the young women of our day are. She will be present. She is, you are aware, England’s greatest heiress. Only yesterday, hearing of that poor man Mr. Warwick’s desperate attack of illness — heart! — and of his having no relative or friend to soothe his pillow — he is lying in absolute loneliness — she offered to go and nurse him! Of course it could not be done. It is not her place. The beauty of the character of a dear innocent young girl, with every gratification at command, who could make the offer, strikes me as unparalleled. She was perfectly sincere — she is sincerity. She asked at once, Where is he? She wished me to accompany her on a first visit. I saw a tear.’

Redworth had called at Lady Wathin’s for information of the state of Mr. Warwick, concerning which a rumour was abroad. No stranger to the vagrant compassionateness of sentimentalists; — rich, idle, conscience-pricked or praise-catching; — he was unmoved by the tale that Miss Asper had proposed to go to Mr. Warwick’s sick-bed in the uniform of a Sister of Charity. —‘Speaking French!’ Lady Wathin exclaimed; and his head rocked, as he said:

‘An Englishman would not be likely to know better.’

‘She speaks exquisite French — all European languages, Mr. Redworth. She does not pretend to wit. To my thinking, depth of sentiment is a far more feminine accomplishment. It assuredly will be found a greater treasure.’

The modest man (modest in such matters) was led by degrees to fancy himself sounded regarding Miss Asper: a piece of sculpture glacially decorative of the domestic mansion in person, to his thinking; and as to the nature of it — not a Diana, with all her faults!

If Diana had any faults, in a world and a position so heavily against her! He laughed to himself, when alone, at the neatly implied bitter reproach cast on the wife by the forsaken young lady, who proposed to nurse the abandoned husband of the woman bereaving her of the man she loved. Sentimentalists enjoy these tricks, the conceiving or the doing of them — the former mainly, which are cheaper, and equally effective. Miss Asper might be deficient in wit; this was a form of practical wit, occasionally exhibited by creatures acting on their instincts. Warwick he pitied, and he put compulsion on himself to go and see the poor fellow, the subject of so sublime a generosity. Mr. Warwick sat in an arm-chair, his legs out straight on the heels, his jaw dragging hollow cheeks, his hands loosely joined; improving in health, he said. A demure woman of middle age was in attendance. He did not speak of his wife. Three times he said disconnectedly, ‘I hear reports,’ and his eyelids worked. Redworth talked of general affairs, without those consolatory efforts, useless between men, which are neither medicine nor good honest water:— he judged by personal feelings. In consequence, he left an invalid the sourer for his visit.

Next day he received a briefly-worded summons from Mrs. Warwick.

Crossing the park on the line to Diana’s house, he met Miss Paynham, who grieved to say that Mrs. Warwick could not give her a sitting; and in a still mournfuller tone, imagined he would find her at home, and alone by this time. ‘I left no one but Mr. Dacier there,’ she observed.

‘Mrs. Warwick will be disengaged tomorrow, no doubt,’ he said consolingly.

Her head performed the negative. ‘They talk politics, and she becomes animated, loses her pose. I will persevere, though I fear I have undertaken a task too much for me.’

‘I am deeply indebted to you for the attempt.’ Redworth bowed to her and set his face to the Abbey-towers, which wore a different aspect in the smoked grey light since his two minutes of colloquy. He had previously noticed that meetings with Miss Paynham produced a similar effect on him, a not so very impressionable man. And how was it done? She told him nothing he did not know or guess.

Diana was alone. Her manner, after the greeting, seemed feverish. She had not to excuse herself for abruptness when he heard the nature of the subject. Her counsellor and friend was informed, in feminine style, that she had, requested him to call, for the purpose of consulting him with regard to a matter she had decided upon; and it was, the sale of The Crossways. She said that it would have gone to her heart once; she supposed she had lost her affection for the place, or had got the better of her superstitions. She spoke lamely as well as bluntly. The place was hers, she said; her own property. Her husband could not interdict a sale.

Redworth addressed himself to her smothered antagonism. ‘Even if he had rights, as they are termed . . . I think you might count on their not being pressed.’

‘I have been told of illness.’ She tapped her foot on the floor.

‘His present state of health is unequal to his ordinary duties.’

‘Emma Dunstane is fully supplied with the latest intelligence, Mr. Redworth. You know the source.’

‘I mention it simply . . . ’

‘Yes, yes. What I have to protest is, that in this respect I am free. The Law has me fast, but leaves me its legal view of my small property. I have no authority over me. I can do as I please, in this, without a collision, or the dread of one. It is the married woman’s perpetual dread when she ventures a step. Your Law originally presumed her a China-footed animal. And more, I have a claim for maintenance.’

She crimsoned angrily.

Redworth showed a look of pleasure, hard to understand. ‘The application would be sufficient, I fancy,’ he said.

‘It should have been offered.’

‘Did you not decline it?’

‘I declined to apply for it. I thought — But, Mr. Redworth, another thing, concerning us all: I want very much to hear your ideas of the prospects of the League; because I know you have ideas. The leaders are terrible men; they fascinate me. They appear to move with an army of facts. They are certainly carrying the country. I am obliged to think them sincere. Common agitators would not hold together, as they do. They gather strength each year. If their statistics are not illusory — an army of phantoms instead of one of facts; and they knock at my head without admission, I have to confess; they must win.’

‘Ultimately, it is quite calculable that they will win,’ said Redworth; and he was led to discourse of rates and duties and prohibitive tariffs to a woman surprisingly athirst, curious for every scrap of intelligence relating to the power, organization, and schemes of the League. ‘Common sense is the secret of every successful civil agitation,’ he said. ‘Rap it unremittingly on crowds of the thickest of human heads, and the response comes at last to sweep all before it. You may reckon that the country will beat the landlords — for that is our question. Is it one of your political themes?’

‘I am not presumptuous to such a degree:— a poor scholar,’ Diana replied. ‘Women striving to lift their heads among men deserve the sarcasm.’

He denied that any sarcasm was intended, and the lesson continued. When she had shaped in her mind some portion of his knowledge of the subject, she reverted casually to her practical business. Would he undertake to try to obtain a purchaser of The Crossways, at the price he might deem reasonable? She left the price entirely to his judgement. And now she had determined to part with the old place, the sooner the better! She said that smiling; and Redworth smiled, outwardly and inwardly. Her talk of her affairs was clearer to him than her curiosity for the mysteries of the League. He gained kind looks besides warm thanks by the promise to seek a purchaser; especially by his avoidance of prying queries. She wanted just this excellent automaton fac-totum; and she referred him to Mr. Braddock for the title-deeds, et caetera — the chirping phrase of ladies happily washing their hands of the mean details of business.

‘How of your last work?’ he asked her.

Serenest equanimity rejoined: ‘As I anticipated, it is not popular. The critics are of one mind with the public. You may have noticed, they rarely flower above that rocky surface. THE CANTATRICE sings them a false note. My next will probably please them less.’

Her mobile lips and brows shot the faint upper-wreath of a smile hovering. It was designed to display her philosophy.

‘And what is the name of your next?’ said he.

‘I name it THE MAN OF TWO MINDS, if you can allow that to be in nature.’

‘Contra-distinguished from the woman?’

‘Oh! you must first believe the woman to have one.’

‘You are working on it?’

‘By fits. And I forgot, Mr. Redworth: I have mislaid my receipts, and must ask you for the address of your wine-merchant; — or, will you? Several dozen of the same wines. I can trust him to be in awe of you, and the good repute of my table depends on his honesty.’

Redworth took the definite order for a large supply of wine.

She gave him her hand: a lost hand, dear to hold, needing to be guided, he feared. For him, it was merely a hand, cut off from the wrist; and he had performed that executive part! A wiser man would now have been the lord of it. . . . So he felt, with his burning wish to protect and cherish the beloved woman, while saying: ‘If we find a speedy bidder for The Crossways, you will have to thank our railways.’

‘You!’ said Diana, confident in his ability to do every-thing of the practical kind.

Her ingenuousness tickled him. He missed her comic touches upon men and things, but the fever shown by her manner accounted for it.

As soon as he left her, she was writing to the lover who had an hour previously been hearing her voice; the note of her theme being Party; and how to serve it, when to sacrifice it to the Country. She wrote, carolling bars of the Puritani marches; and such will passion do, that her choice of music was quite in harmony with her theme. The martially-amorous melodies of Italian Opera in those days fostered a passion challenged to intrepidity from the heart of softness; gliding at the same time, and putting warm blood even into dull arithmetical figures which might be important to her lover, her hero fronting battle. She condensed Redworth’s information skilfully, heartily giving it and whatever she had imbibed, as her own, down to the remark: ‘Common sense in questions of justice, is a weapon that makes way into human heads and wins the certain majority, if we strike with it incessantly.’ Whether anything she wrote was her own, mattered little: the savour of Percy’s praise, which none could share with her, made it instantly all her own. Besides she wrote to strengthen him; she naturally laid her friends and the world under contribution; and no other sort of writing was possible. Percy had not a common interest in fiction; still less for high comedy. He liked the broad laugh when he deigned to open books of that sort; puns and strong flavours and harlequin surprises; and her work would not admit of them, however great her willingness to force her hand for his amusement: consequently her inventiveness deadened. She had to cease whipping it. ‘My poor old London cabhorse of a pen shall go to grass!’ she sighed, looking to the sale of The Crossways for money; looking no farther.

Those marshalled battalions of Debit and Credit were in hostile order, the weaker simply devoted to fighting for delay, when a winged messenger bearing the form of old Mr. Braddock descended to her with the reconciling news that a hermit bachelor, an acquaintance of Mr. Redworth’s — both of whom wore a gloomy hue in her mind immediately — had offered a sum for the purchase of The Crossways. Considering the out-of-the-way district, Mr. Braddock thought it an excellent price to get. She thought the reverse, but confessed that double the sum would not have altered her opinion. Double the sum scarcely counted for the service she required of it for much more than a year. The money was paid shortly after into her Bank, and then she enjoyed the contemptuous felicity of tossing meat to her lions, tigers, wolves, and jackals, who, but for the fortunate intervention, would have been feeding on her. These menagerie beasts of prey were the lady’s tradesmen, Debit’s hungry-brood. She had a rapid glimpse of a false position in regarding that legitimate band so scornfully: another glimpse likewise of a day to come when they might not be stopped at the door. She was running a race with something; with what? It was unnamed; it ran in a shroud.

At times she surprised her heart violently beating when there had not been a thought to set it in motion. She traced it once to the words, ‘next year,’ incidentally mentioned. ‘Free,’ was a word that checked her throbs, as at a question of life or death. Her solitude, excepting the hours of sleep, if then, was a time of irregular breathing. The something unnamed, running beside her, became a dreadful familiar; the race between them past contemplation for ghastliness. ‘But this is your Law!’ she cried to the world, while blinding her eyes against a peep of the shrouded features.

Singularly, she had but to abandon hope, and the shadowy figure vanished, the tragic race was ended. How to live and think, and not to hope: the slave of passion had this problem before her.

Other tasks were supportable, though one seemed hard at moments and was not passive; it attacked her. The men and women of her circle derisively, unanimously, disbelieved in an innocence that forfeited reputation. Women were complimentarily assumed to be not such gaping idiots. And as the weeks advanced, a change came over Percy. The gentleman had grown restless at covert congratulations, hollow to his knowledge, however much caressing vanity, and therefore secretly a wound to it. One day, after sitting silent, he bluntly proposed to break ‘this foolish trifling’; just in his old manner, though not so honourably; not very definitely either. Her hand was taken.

‘I feared that dumbness!’ Diana said, letting her hand go, but keeping her composure. ‘My friend Percy, I am not a lion-tamer, and if you are of those animals, we break the chapter. Plainly you think that where there appears to be a choice of fools, the woman is distinctly designed for the person. Drop my hand, or I shall repeat the fable of the Goose with the Golden Eggs.’

‘Fables are applicable only in the school-room,’ said he; and he ventured on ‘Tony!’

‘I vowed an oath to my dear Emma — as good as to the heavens! and that of itself would stay me from being insane again.’ She released herself. ‘Signor Percy, you teach me to suspect you of having an idle wish to pluck your plaything to pieces:— to boast of it? Ah! my friend, I fancied I was of more value to you. You must come less often; even to not at all, if you are one of those idols with feet of clay which leave the print of their steps in a room; or fall and crush the silly idolizer.’

‘But surely you know . . . ’ said he. ‘We can’t have to wait long.’ He looked full of hopeful meanings.

‘A reason . . .!’ She kept down her breath. A longdrawn sigh followed, through parted lips. She had a sensation of horror. ‘And I cannot propose to nurse him — Emma will not hear of it,’ she said. ‘I dare not. Hypocrite to that extreme? Oh, no! But I must hear nothing. As it is, I am haunted. Now let this pass. Tony me no Tonies; I am stony to such whimpering business now we are in the van of the struggle. All round us it sounds like war. Last night I had Mr. Tonans dining here; — he wished to meet you; and you must have a private meeting with Mr. Whitmonby: he will be useful; others as well. You are wrong in affecting contempt of the Press. It perches you on a rock; but the swimmer in politics knows what draws the tides. Your own people, your set, your class, are a drag to you, like inherited superstitions to the wakening brain. The greater the glory! For you see the lead you take? You are saving your class. They should lead, and will, if they prove worthy in the crisis. Their curious error is to believe in the stability of a monumental position.’

‘Perfectly true!’ cried Dacier; and the next minute, heated by approbation, was begging for her hand earnestly. She refused it.

‘But you say things that catch me!’ he pleaded. ‘Remember, it was nearly mine. It soon will be mine. I heard yesterday from Lady Wathin . . . well, if it pains you!’

‘Speak on,’ said Diana, resigned to her thirsty ears.

‘He is not expected to last through the autumn.’

‘The calculation is hers?’

‘Not exactly:— judging from the symptoms.’

Diana flashed a fiery eye into Dacier’s, and rose. She was past danger of melting, with her imagination darkened by the funeral image; but she craved solitude, and had to act the callous, to dismiss him.

‘Good. Enough for the day. Now leave me, if you please. When we meet again, stifle that raven’s croak. I am not a “Sister of Charity,” but neither am I a vulture hovering for the horse in the desert to die. A poor simile! — when it is my own and not another’s breath that I want. Nothing in nature, only gruesome German stories will fetch comparisons for the yoke of this Law of yours. It seems the nightmare dream following an ogre’s supper.’

She was not acting the shiver of her frame.

To-morrow was open to him, and prospect of better fortune, so he departed, after squeezing the hand she ceremoniously extended.

But her woman’s intuition warned her that she had not maintained the sovereign impression which was her security. And hope had become a flame in her bosom that would no longer take the common extinguisher. The race she ran was with a shrouded figure no more, but with the figure of the shroud; she had to summon paroxysms of a pity hard to feel, images of sickness, helplessness, the vaults, the last human silence for the stilling of her passionate heart. And when this was partly effected, the question, Am I going to live? renewed her tragical struggle. Who was it under the vaults, in the shroud, between the planks? and with human sensibility to swell the horror! Passion whispered of a vaster sorrow needed for herself; and the hope conjuring those frightful complexities was needed to soothe her. She pitied the man, but she was an enamoured woman. Often of late she had been sharply stung, relaxed as well, by the observations of Danvers assisting at her toilette. Had she beauty and charm, beauty and rich health in the young summer blooming of her days? — and all doomed to waste? No insurgency of words arose in denunciation of the wrong done to her nature. An undefined heavy feeling of wrong there was, just perceptive enough to let her know, without gravely shaming, that one or another must be slain for peace to come; for it is the case in which the world of the Laws overloading her is pitiless to women, deaf past ear-trumpets, past intercession; detesting and reviling them for a feeble human cry, and for one apparent step of revolt piling the pelted stones on them. It will not discriminate shades of hue, it massacres all the shadowed. They are honoured, after a fashion, at a certain elevation. Descending from it, and purely to breathe common air (thus in her mind), they are scourged and outcast. And alas! the very pleading for them excites a sort of ridicule in their advocate. How? She was utterly, even desperately, nay personally, earnest, and her humour closed her lips; though comical views of the scourged and outcast coming from the opposite party — the huge bully world — she would not have tolerated. Diana raged at a prevailing strength on the part of that huge bully world, which seemed really to embrace the atmosphere. Emma had said: ‘The rules of Christian Society are a blessed Government for us women. We owe it so much that there is not a brick of the fabric we should not prop.’ Emma’s talk of obedience to the Laws, being Laws, was repeated by the rebel, with an involuntary unphrased comparison of the vessel in dock and the vessel at sea.

When Dacier next called to see Mrs. Warwick, he heard that she had gone to Copsley for a couple of weeks. The lesson was emphasized by her not writing:— and was it the tricky sex, or the splendid character of the woman, which dealt him this punishment? Knowing how much Diana forfeited for him, he was moved to some enthusiasm, despite his inclination to be hurt.

She, on her return to London, gained a considerable increase of knowledge as to her position in the eye of the world; and unlike the result of her meditations derived from the clamouring tradesmen, whom she could excuse, she was neither illuminated nor cautioned by that dubious look; she conscientiously revolted. Lady Pennon hinted a word for her Government. ‘A good deal of what you so capitally call “Green tea talk” is going on, my dear.’ Diana replied, without pretending to misunderstand.

‘Gossip is a beast of prey that does not wait for the death of the creature it devours. They are welcome to my shadow, if the liberty I claim casts one, and it feeds them.’ To which the old lady rejoined: ‘Oh! I am with you through thick and thin. I presented you at Court, and I stand by you. Only, walk carefully. Women have to walk with a train. You are too famous not to have your troops of watchers.’

‘But I mean to prove,’ said Diana, ‘that a woman can walk with her train independent of the common reserves and artifices.’

‘Not on highways, my dear!’

Diana, praising the speaker, referred the whole truth in that to the material element of her metaphor.

She was more astonished by Whitmonby’s candid chiding; but with him she could fence, and men are easily diverted. She had sent for him, to bring him and Percy Dacier together to a conference. Unaware of the project, he took the opportunity of their privacy to speak of the great station open to her in London being imperilled; and he spoke of ‘tongues,’ and ahem! A very little would have induced him to fill that empty vocable with a name.

She had to pardon the critic in him for an unpleasant review of her hapless CANTATRICE; and as a means of evasion, she mentioned the poor book and her slaughter of the heroine, that he had complained of.

‘I killed her; I could not let her live. You were unjust in accusing the authoress of heartlessness.’

‘If I did, I retract,’ said he. ‘She steers too evidently from the centre of the vessel. She has the organ in excess.’

‘Proof that it is not squandered.’

‘The point concerns direction.’

‘Have I made so bad a choice of my friends?’

‘It is the common error of the sprightly to suppose that in parrying a thrust they blind our eyes.’

‘The world sees always what it desires to see, Mr. Whitmonby.’

‘The world, my dear Mrs. Warwick, is a blundering machine upon its own affairs, but a cruel sleuth-hound to rouse in pursuit.’

‘So now you have me chased by sight and scent. And if I take wing?’

‘Shots! volleys! — You are lawful game. The choice you have made of your friends, should oblige you to think of them.’

‘I imagine I do. Have I offended any, or one?’

‘I will not say that. You know the commotion in a French kitchen when the guests of the house declined a particular dish furnished them by command. The cook and his crew were loyal to their master, but, for the love of their Art, they sent him notice. It is ill serving a mad sovereign.’

Diana bowed to the compact little apologue.

‘I will tell you another story, traditional in our family from my great-grandmother, a Spanish woman,’ she said. ‘A cavalier serenaded his mistress, and rascal mercenaries fell upon him before he could draw sword. He battered his guitar on their pates till the lattice opened with a cry, and startled them to flight. “Thrice blessed and beloved!” he called to her above, in reference to the noise, “it was merely a diversion of the accompaniment.” Now there was loyal service to a sovereign!’

‘You are certainly an angel!’ exclaimed Whitmonby. ‘I swallow the story, and leave it to digestion to discover the appositeness. Whatever tuneful instrument one of your friends possesses shall solace your slumbers or batter the pate of your enemy. But discourage the habitual serenader.’

‘The musician you must mean is due here now, by appointment to meet you,’ said Diana, and set him momentarily agape with the name of Mr. Percy Dacier.

That was the origin of the alliance between the young statesman and a newspaper editor. Whitmonby, accepting proposals which suited him, quitted the house, after an hour of political talk, no longer inclined to hint at the ‘habitual serenader,’ but very ready to fall foul of those who did, as he proved when the numbers buzzed openly. Times were masculine; the excitement on the eve of so great a crisis, and Diana’s comprehension of it and fine heading cry, put that weak matter aside. Moreover, he was taught to suppose himself as welcome a guest as Dacier; and the cook could stand criticism; the wines — wonderful to say of a lady’s table — were trusty; the talk, on the political evenings and the social and anecdotal supper-nights, ran always in perfect accord with his ideal of the conversational orchestra: an improvized harmony, unmatched elsewhere. She did not, he considered, so perfectly assort her dinner-guests; that was her one fault. She had therefore to strain her adroitness to cover their deficiencies and fuse them. But what other woman could have done it! She led superbly. If an Irishman was present, she kept him from overflooding, managed to extract just the flavour of him, the smack of salt. She did even, at Whitmonby’s table, on a red-letter Sunday evening, in concert with him and the Dean, bring down that cataract, the Bodleian, to the levels of interchanging dialogue by seasonable touches, inimitably done, and never done before. Sullivan Smith, unbridled in the middle of dinner, was docile to her. ‘Irishmen;’ she said, pleading on their behalf to Whitmonby, who pronounced the race too raw for an Olympian feast, ‘are invaluable if you hang them up to smoke and cure’; and the master of social converse could not deny that they were responsive to her magic. The supper-nights were mainly devoted to Percy’s friends. He brought as many as he pleased, and as often as it pleased him; and it was her pride to provide Cleopatra banquets for the lover whose anxieties were soothed by them, and to whom she sacrificed her name willingly in return for a generosity that certain chance whispers of her heart elevated to the pitch of measureless.

So they wore through the Session and the Autumn, clouds heavier, the League drumming, the cry of Ireland ‘ominously Banshee,’ as she wrote to Emma.

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