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

Chapter 3

The Interior of Mr. Redworth, and the Exterior of Mr. Sullivan Smith

‘It may be as well to take Mr. Redworth’s arm; you will escape the crush for you,’ said Lady Dunstane to Diana. ‘I don’t sup. Yes! go! You must eat, and he is handiest to conduct you.’

Diana thought of her chaperon and the lateness of the hour. She murmured, to soften her conscience, ‘Poor Mrs. Pettigrew!’

And once more Mr. Redworth, outwardly imperturbable, was in the maelstrom of a happiness resembling tempest. He talked, and knew not what he uttered. To give this matchless girl the best to eat and drink was his business, and he performed it. Oddly, for a man who had no loaded design, marshalling the troops in his active and capacious cranium, he fell upon calculations of his income, present and prospective, while she sat at the table and he stood behind her. Others were wrangling for places, chairs, plates, glasses, game-pie, champagne: she had them; the lady under his charge to a certainty would have them; so far good; and he had seven hundred pounds per annum — seven hundred and fifty, in a favourable aspect, at a stretch. . . .

‘Yes, the pleasantest thing to me after working all day is an opera of Carini’s,’ she said, in full accord with her taste, ‘and Tellio for tenor, certainly.’— A fair enough sum for a bachelor: four hundred personal income, and a prospect of higher dividends to increase it; three hundred odd from his office, and no immediate prospects of an increase there; no one died there, no elderly martyr for the advancement of his juniors could be persuaded to die; they were too tough to think of retiring. Say, seven hundred and fifty. . . . eight hundred, if the commerce of the country fortified the Bank his property was embarked in; or eight-fifty or nine ten. . . .

‘I could call him my poet also,’ Mr. Redworth agreed with her taste in poets. ‘His letters are among the best ever written — or ever published: the raciest English I know. Frank, straight out: capital descriptions. The best English letter-writers are as good as the French —

You don’t think so? — in their way, of course. I dare’ say we don’t sufficiently cultivate the art. We require the supple tongue a closer intercourse of society gives.’— Eight or ten hundred. Comfortable enough for a man in chambers. To dream of entering as a householder on that sum, in these days, would be stark nonsense: and a man two removes from a baronetcy has no right to set his reckoning on deaths:— if he does, he becomes a sort of meditative assassin. But what were the Fates about when they planted a man of the ability of Tom Redworth in a Government office! Clearly they intended him to remain a bachelor for life. And they sent him over to Ireland on inspection duty for a month to have sight of an Irish Beauty. . . .

‘Think war the finest subject for poets?’ he exclaimed. ‘Flatly no: I don’t think it. I think exactly the reverse. It brings out the noblest traits in human character? I won’t own that even. It brings out some but under excitement, when you have not always the real man. — Pray don’t sneer at domestic life. Well, there was a suspicion of disdain. — Yes, I can respect the hero, military or civil; with this distinction, that the military hero aims at personal reward —’

‘He braves wounds and death,’ interposed Diana.

‘Whereas the civilian hero —’

‘Pardon me, let me deny that the soldier-hero aims at a personal reward,’ she again interposed.

‘He gets it.’

‘If he is not beaten.’

‘And then he is no longer a hero.’

‘He is to me.’

She had a woman’s inveterate admiration of the profession of aims. Mr. Redworth endeavoured to render practicable an opening in her mind to reason. He admitted the grandeur of the poetry of Homer. We are a few centuries in advance of Homer. We do not slay damsels for a sacrifice to propitiate celestial wrath; nor do we revel in details of slaughter. He reasoned with her; he repeated stories known to him of civilian heroes, and won her assent to the heroical title for their deeds, but it was languid, or not so bright as the deeds deserved — or as the young lady could look; and he insisted on the civilian hero, impelled by some unconscious motive to make her see the thing he thought, also the thing he was — his plain mind and matter-of-fact nature. Possibly she caught a glimpse of that. After a turn of fencing, in which he was impressed by the vibration of her tones when speaking of military heroes, she quitted the table, saying: ‘An argument between one at supper and another handing plates, is rather unequal if eloquence is needed. As Pat said to the constable, when his hands were tied, You beat me with the fists, but my spirit is towering and kicks freely.’— Eight hundred? a thousand a year, two thousand, are as nothing in the calculation of a householder who means that the mistress of the house shall have the choicest of the fruits and flowers of the Four Quarters; and Thomas Redworth had vowed at his first outlook on the world of women, that never should one of the sisterhood coming under his charge complain of not having them in profusion. Consequently he was a settled bachelor. In the character of disengaged and unaspiring philosophical bachelor, he reviewed the revelations of her character betrayed by the beautiful virgin devoted to the sanguine coat. The thrill of her voice in speaking of soldier-heroes shot him to the yonder side of a gulf. Not knowing why, for he had no scheme, desperate or other, in his head, the least affrighted of men was frightened by her tastes, and by her aplomb, her inoffensiveness in freedom of manner and self-sufficiency — sign of purest breeding: and by her easy, peerless vivacity, her proofs of descent from the blood of Dan Merion — a wildish blood. The candour of the look of her eyes in speaking, her power of looking forthright at men, and looking the thing she spoke, and the play of her voluble lips, the significant repose of her lips in silence, her weighing of the words he uttered, for a moment before the prompt apposite reply, down to her simple quotation of Pat, alarmed him; he did not ask himself why. His manly self was not intruded on his cogitations. A mere eight hundred or thousand per annum had no place in that midst. He beheld her quietly selecting the position of dignity to suit her: an eminent military man, or statesman, or wealthy nobleman: she had but to choose. A war would offer her the decorated soldier she wanted. A war! Such are women of this kind! The thought revolted him, and pricked his appetite for supper. He did service by Mrs. Pettigrew, to which lady Miss Merion, as she said, promoted him, at the table, and then began to refresh in person, standing.

‘Malkin! that’s the fellow’s name’ he heard close at his ear.

Mr. Sullivan Smith had drained a champagne-glass, bottle in hand, and was priming the successor to it. He cocked his eye at Mr. Redworth’s quick stare. ‘Malkin!’ And now we’ll see whether the interior of him is grey, or black, or tabby, or tortoise-shell, or any other colour of the Malkin breed.’

He explained to Mr. Redworth that he had summoned Mr. Malkin to answer to him as a gentleman for calling Miss Merion a jilt. ‘The man, sir, said in my hearing, she jilted him, and that’s to call the lady a jilt. There’s not a point of difference, not a shade. I overheard him. I happened by the blessing of Providence to be by when he named her publicly jilt. And it’s enough that she’s a lady to have me for her champion. The same if she had been an Esquimaux squaw. I’ll never live to hear a lady insulted.’

‘You don’t mean to say you’re the donkey to provoke a duel!’ Mr. Redworth burst out gruffly, through turkey and stuffing.

‘And an Irish lady, the young Beauty of Erin!’ Mr. Sullivan Smith was flowing on. He became frigid, he politely bowed: ‘Two, sir, if you haven’t the grace to withdraw the offensive term before it cools and can’t be obliterated.’

‘Fiddle! and go to the deuce!’ Mr. Redworth cried.

‘Would a soft slap o’ the cheek persuade you, sir?’

‘Try it outside, and don’t bother me with nonsense of that sort at my supper. If I’m struck, I strike back. I keep my pistols for bandits and law-breakers. Here,’ said Mr. Redworth, better inspired as to the way of treating an ultra of the isle; ‘touch glasses: you’re a gentleman, and won’t disturb good company. By-and-by.’

The pleasing prospect of by-and-by renewed in Mr. Sullivan Smith his composure. They touched the foaming glasses: upon which, in a friendly manner, Mr. Sullivan Smith proposed that they should go outside as soon as Mr. Redworth had finished supper-quite finished supper: for the reason that the term ‘donkey’ affixed to him was like a minster cap of schooldays, ringing bells on his topknot, and also that it stuck in his gizzard.

Mr. Redworth declared the term to be simply hypothetical. ‘If you fight, you’re a donkey for doing it. But you won’t fight.’

‘But I will fight.’

‘He won’t fight.’

‘Then for the honour of your country you must. But I’d rather have him first, for I haven’t drunk with him, and it should be a case of necessity to put a bullet or a couple of inches of steel through the man you’ve drunk with. And what’s in your favour, she danced with ye. She seemed to take to ye, and the man she has the smallest sugar-melting for is sacred if he’s not sweet to me. If he retracts!’

‘Hypothetically, No.’

‘But supposititiously?’

‘Certainly.’

‘Then we grasp hands on it. It’s Malkin or nothing!’ said Mr. Sullivan Smith, swinging his heel moodily to wander in search of the foe. How one sane man could name another a donkey for fighting to clear an innocent young lady’s reputation, passed his rational conception.

Sir Lukin hastened to Mr. Redworth to have a talk over old schooldays and fellows.

‘I’ll tell you what,’ said the civilian, ‘There are Irishmen and Irishmen. I’ve met cool heads and long heads among them, and you and I knew Jack Derry, who was good at most things. But the burlesque Irishman can’t be caricatured. Nature strained herself in a ‘fit of absurdity to produce him, and all that Art can do is to copy.’

This was his prelude to an account of Mr. Sullivan Smith, whom, as a specimen, he rejoiced to have met.

‘There’s a chance of mischief,’ said Sir Lukin. ‘I know nothing of the man he calls Malkin. I’ll inquire presently.’

He talked of his prospects, and of the women. Fair ones, in his opinion, besides Miss Merion were parading; he sketched two or three of his partners with a broad brush of epithets.

‘It won’t do for Miss Merion’s name to be mixed up in a duel,’ said Redworth.

‘Not if she’s to make her fortune in England,’ said Sir Lukin. ‘It’s probably all smoke.’

The remark had hardly escaped him when a wreath of metaphorical smoke, and fire, and no mean report, startled the company of supping gentlemen. At the pitch of his voice, Mr. Sullivan Smith denounced Mr. Malkin in presence for a cur masquerading as a cat.

‘And that is not the scoundrel’s prime offence. For what d’ ye think? He trumps up an engagement to dance with a beautiful lady, and because she can’t remember, binds her to an oath for a dance to come, and then, holding her prisoner to ‘m, he sulks, the dirty dogcat goes and sulks, and he won’t dance and won’t do anything but screech up in corners that he’s jilted. He said the word. Dozens of gentlemen heard the word. And I demand an apology of Misterr Malkin — or . . .! And none of your guerrier nodding and bravado, Mister Malkin, at me, if you please. The case is for settlement between gentlemen.’

The harassed gentleman of the name of Malkin, driven to extremity by the worrying, stood in braced preparation for the English attitude of defence. His tormentor drew closer to him.

‘Mind, I give you warning, if you lay a finger on me I’ll knock you down,’ said he.

Most joyfully Mr. Sullivan Smith uttered a low melodious cry. ‘For a specimen of manners, in an assembly of ladies and gentlemen . . . I ask ye!’ he addressed the ring about him, to put his adversary entirely in the wrong before provoking the act of war. And then, as one intending gently to remonstrate, he was on the point of stretching out his finger to the shoulder of Mr. Malkin, when Redworth seized his arm, saying: ‘I ‘m your man: me first: you’re due to me.’

Mr. Sullivan Smith beheld the vanishing of his foe in a cloud of faces. Now was he wroth on patently reasonable grounds. He threatened Saxondom. Man up, man down, he challenged the race of short-legged, thickset, wooden-gated curmudgeons: and let it be pugilism if their white livers shivered at the notion of powder and ball. Redworth, in the struggle to haul him away, received a blow from him. ‘And you’ve got it! you would have it!’ roared the Celt.

‘Excuse yourself to the company for a misdirected effort,’ Redworth said; and he observed generally: ‘No Irish gentleman strikes a blow in good company.’

‘But that’s true as Writ! And I offer excuses — if you’ll come along with me and a couple of friends. The thing has been done before by torchlight — and neatly.’

‘Come along, and come alone,’ said Redworth.

A way was cleared for them. Sir Lukin hurried up to Redworth, who had no doubt of his ability to manage Mr. Sullivan Smith.

He managed that fine-hearted but purely sensational fellow so well that Lady Dunstane and Diana, after hearing in some anxiety of the hubbub below, beheld them entering the long saloon amicably, with the nods and looks of gentlemen quietly accordant.

A little later, Lady Dunstane questioned Redworth, and he smoothed her apprehensions, delivering himself, much to her comfort, thus: ‘In no case would any lady’s name have been raised. The whole affair was nonsensical. He’s a capital fellow of a kind, capable of behaving like a man of the world and a gentleman. Only he has, or thinks he has, like lots of his countrymen, a raw wound — something that itches to be grazed. Champagne on that! . . . Irishmen, as far as I have seen of them, are, like horses, bundles of nerves; and you must manage them, as you do with all nervous creatures, with firmness, but good temper. You must never get into a fury of the nerves yourself with them. Spur and whip they don’t want; they’ll be off with you in a jiffy if you try it.

They want the bridle-rein. That seems to me the secret of Irish character. We English are not bad horsemen. It’s a wonder we blunder so in our management of such a people.’

‘I wish you were in a position to put your method to the proof,’ said she.

He shrugged. ‘There’s little chance of it!’

To reward him for his practical discretion, she contrived that Diana should give him a final dance; and the beautiful gill smiled quickly responsive to his appeal. He was, moreover, sensible in her look and speech that he had advanced in her consideration to be no longer the mere spinning stick, a young lady’s partner. By which he humbly understood that her friend approved him. A gentle delirium enfolded his brain. A householder’s life is often begun on eight hundred a year: on less: on much less:— sometimes on nothing but resolution to make a fitting income, carving out a fortune. Eight hundred may stand as a superior basis. That sum is a distinct point of vantage. If it does not mean a carriage and Parisian millinery and a station for one of the stars of society, it means at any rate security; and then, the heart of the man being strong and sound . . .

‘Yes,’ he replied to her, ‘I like my experience of Ireland and the Irish; and better than I thought I should. St. George’s Channel ought to be crossed oftener by both of us.’

‘I’m always glad of the signal,’ said Diana.

He had implied the people of the two islands. He allowed her interpretation to remain personal, for the sake of a creeping deliciousness that it carried through his blood.

‘Shall you soon be returning to England?’ he ventured to ask.

‘I am Lady Dunstane’s guest for some months.’

‘Then you will. Sir Lukin has an estate in Surrey. He talks of quitting the Service.’

‘I can’t believe it!’

His thrilled blood was chilled. She entertained a sentiment amounting to adoration for the profession of arms!

Gallantly had the veteran General and Hero held on into the night, that the festivity might not be dashed by his departure; perhaps, to a certain degree, to prolong his enjoyment of a flattering scene. At last Sir Lukin had the word from him, and came to his wife. Diana slipped across the floor to her accommodating chaperon, whom, for the sake of another five minutes with her beloved Emma, she very agreeably persuaded to walk in the train of Lord Larrian, and forth they trooped down a pathway of nodding heads and curtsies, resembling oak and birch-trees under a tempered gale, even to the shedding of leaves, for here a turban was picked up by Sir Lukin, there a jewelled ear-ring by the self-constituted attendant, Mr. Thomas Redworth. At the portico rang a wakening cheer, really worth hearing. The rain it rained, and hats were formless,’ as in the first conception of the edifice, backs were damp, boots liquidly musical, the pipe of consolation smoked with difficulty, with much pulling at the stem, but the cheer arose magnificently, and multiplied itself, touching at the same moment the heavens and Diana’s heart-at least, drawing them together; for she felt exalted, enraptured, as proud of her countrymen as of their hero.

‘That’s the natural shamrock, after the artificial!’ she heard Mr. Redworth say, behind her.

She turned and sent one of her brilliant glances flying over him, in gratitude for a timely word well said. And she never forgot the remark, nor he the look.

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