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

Chapter 32

Wherein We Behold a Giddy Turn at the Spectral Crossways

Danvers accompanied Mr. Dacier to the house-door. Climbing the stairs, she found her mistress in the drawing-room still.

‘You must be cold, ma’am,’ she said, glancing at the fire-grate.

‘Is it a frost?’ said Diana.

‘It’s midnight and midwinter, ma’am.’

‘Has it struck midnight?’

The mantel-piece clock said five minutes past.

‘You had better go to bed, Danvers, or you will lose your bloom. Stop; you are a faithful soul. Great things are happening and I am agitated. Mr. Dacier has told me news. He came back purposely.’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ said Danvers. ‘He had a great deal to tell?’

‘Well, he had.’ Diana coloured at the first tentative impertinence she had heard from her maid. ‘What is the secret of you, Danvers? What attaches you to me?’

‘I’m sure I don’t know, ma’am. I’m romantic.’

‘And you think me a romantic object?’

‘I’m sure I can’t say, ma’am. I’d rather serve you than any other lady; and I wish you was happy.’

‘Do you suppose I am unhappy?’

‘I’m sure — but if I may speak, ma’am: so handsome and clever a lady! and young! I can’t bear to see it.’

‘Tush, you silly woman. You read your melting tales, and imagine. I must go and write for money: it is my profession. And I haven’t an idea in my head. This news disturbs me. Ruin if I don’t write; so I must. — I can’t!’

Diana beheld the ruin. She clasped the great news for succour. Great indeed: and known but to her of all the outer world. She was ahead of all — ahead of Mr. Tonans!

The visionary figure of Mr. Tonans petrified by the great news, drinking it, and confessing her ahead of him in the race for secrets, arose toweringly. She had not ever seen the Editor in his den at midnight. With the rumble of his machinery about him, and fresh matter arriving and flying into the printing-press, it must be like being in the very furnace-hissing of Events: an Olympian Council held in Vulcan’s smithy. Consider the bringing to the Jove there news of such magnitude as to stupefy him! He, too, who had admonished her rather sneeringly for staleness in her information. But this news, great though it was, and throbbing like a heart plucked out of a breathing body, throbbed but for a brief term, a day or two; after which, great though it was, immense, it relapsed into a common organ, a possession of the multitude, merely historically curious.

‘You are not afraid of the streets at night?’ Diana said to her maid, as they were going upstairs.

‘Not when we’re driving, ma’am,’ was the answer.

THE MAN OF TWO MINDS faced his creatrix in the dressing-room, still delivering that most ponderous of sentences — a smothering pillow!

I have mistaken my vocation, thought Diana: I am certainly the flattest proser who ever penned a line.

She sent Dangers into the bedroom on a trifling errand, unable to bear the woman’s proximity, and oddly unwilling to dismiss her.

She pressed her hands on her eyelids. Would Percy have humiliated her so if he had respected her? He took advantage of the sudden loss of her habitual queenly initiative at the wonderful news to debase and stain their intimacy. The lover’s behaviour was judged by her sensations: she felt humiliated, plucked violently from the throne where she had long been sitting securely, very proudly. That was at an end. If she was to be better than the loathsomest of hypocrites, she must deny him his admission to the house. And then what was her life!

Something that was pressing her low, she knew not how, and left it unquestioned, incited her to exaggerate the indignity her pride had suffered. She was a dethroned woman. Deeper within, an unmasked actress, she said. Oh, she forgave him! But clearly he took her for the same as other women consenting to receive a privileged visitor. And sounding herself to the soul, was she so magnificently better? Her face flamed. She hugged her arms at her breast to quiet the beating, and dropped them when she surprised herself embracing the memory. He had brought political news, and treated her as — name the thing! Not designedly, it might be: her position invited it. ‘The world had given her to him.’ The world is always a prophet of the mire; but the world is no longer an utterly mistaken world. She shook before it.

She asked herself why Percy or the world should think highly of an adventuress, who was a denounced wife, a wretched author, and on the verge of bankruptcy. She was an adventuress. When she held The Crossways she had at least a bit of solid footing: now gone. An adventuress without an idea in her head: witness her dullard, The Man of Two Minds, at his work of sermonizing his mistress.

The tremendous pressure upon our consciousness of the material cause, when we find ourselves cast among the breakers of moral difficulties and endeavour to elude that mudvisaged monster, chiefly by feigning unconsciousness, was an experience of Diana’s, in the crisis to which she was wrought. Her wits were too acute, her nature too direct, to permit of a lengthened confusion. She laid the scourge on her flesh smartly. — I gave him these privileges because I am weak as the weakest, base as my enemies proclaim me. I covered my woman’s vile weakness with an air of intellectual serenity that he, choosing his moment, tore away, exposing me to myself, as well as to him, the most ordinary of reptiles. I kept up a costly household for the sole purpose of seeing him and having him near me. Hence this bitter need of money! — Either it must be money or disgrace. Money would assist her quietly to amend and complete her work. Yes, and this want of money, in a review of the last two years, was the material cause of her recklessness. It was, her revived and uprising pudency declared, the principal; the only cause. Mere want of money.

And she had a secret worth thousands! The secret of a day, no more: anybody’s secret after some four and twenty hours.

She smiled at the fancied elongation and stare of the features of Mr. Tonans in his editorial midnight den.

What if he knew it and could cap it with something novel and stranger? Hardly. But it was an inciting suggestion.

She began to tremble as a lightning-flash made visible her fortunes recovered, disgrace averted, hours of peace for composition stretching before her: a summer afternoon’s vista.

It seemed a duel between herself and Mr. Tonans, and she sure of her triumph — Diana victrix!

‘Danvers!’ she called.

‘Is it to undress, ma’am?’ said the maid, entering to her.

‘You are not afraid of the streets, you tell me. I have to go down to the City, I think. It is urgent. Yes, I must go. If I were to impart the news to you, your head would be a tolling bell for a month.’

‘You will take a cab, ma’am.’

‘We must walk out to find one. I must go, though I should have to go on foot. Quick with bonnet and shawl; muffle up warmly. We have never been out so late: but does it matter? You’re a brave soul, I’m sure, and you shall have your fee.’

‘I don’t care for money, ma’am.’

‘When we get home you shall kiss me.’

Danvers clothed her mistress in furs and rich wrappings: Not paid for! was Diana’s desperate thought, and a wrong one; but she had to seem the precipitated bankrupt and succeeded. She was near being it. The boiling of her secret carried her through the streets rapidly and unobservantly except of such small things as the glow of the lights on the pavements and the hushed cognizance of the houses, in silence to a thoroughfare where a willing cabman was met. The destination named, he nodded alertly he had driven gentlemen there at night from the House of Commons, he said.

‘Our Parliament is now sitting, and you drive ladies,’ Diana replied.

‘I hope I know one, never mind the hour,’ said he of the capes.

He was bidden to drive rapidly.

‘Complexion a tulip: you do not often see a pale cabman,’ she remarked to Danvers, who began laughing, as she always expected to do on an excursion with her mistress.

‘Do you remember, ma’am, the cabman taking us to the coach, when you thought of going to the continent?’

‘And I went to The Crossways? I have forgotten him.’

‘He declared you was so beautiful a lady he would drive you to the end of England for nothing.’

‘It must have been when I was paying him. Put it out of your mind, Danvers, that there are individual cabmen. They are the painted flowers of our metropolitan thoroughfares, and we gather them in rows.’

‘They have their feelings, ma’am.’

‘Brandied feelings are not pathetic to me.’

‘I like to think kindly of them,’ Danvers remarked, in reproof of her inhumanity; adding: ‘They may overturn us!’ at which Diana laughed. Her eyes were drawn to a brawl of women and men in the street. ‘Ah! that miserable sight!’ she cried. ‘It is the everlasting nightmare of London.’

Danvers humped, femininely injured by the notice of it. She wondered her mistress should deign to.

Rolling on between the blind and darkened houses, Diana transferred her sensations to them, and in a fit of the nerves imagined them beholding a funeral convoy without followers.

They came in view of the domed cathedral, hearing, in a pause of the wheels, the bell of the hour. ‘Faster — faster! my dear man,’ Diana murmured, and they entered a small still square of many lighted windows.

‘This must be where the morrow is manufactured,’ she said. ‘Tell the man to wait. — Or rather it’s the mirror of yesterday: we have to look backward to see forward in life.’

She talked her cool philosophy to mask her excitement from herself. Her card, marked: ‘Imperative-two minutes,’ was taken up to Mr. Tonans. They ascended to the editorial ante-room. Doors opened and shut, hasty feet traversed the corridors, a dull hum in dumbness told of mighty business at work. Diana received the summons to the mighty head of the establishment. Danvers was left to speculate. She heard the voice of Mr. Tonans: ‘Not more than two!’ This was not a place for compliments. Men passed her, hither and yonder, cursorily noticing the presence of a woman. She lost, very strangely to her, the sense of her sex and became an object — a disregarded object. Things of more importance were about. Her feminine self-esteem was troubled; all idea of attractiveness expired. Here was manifestly a spot where women had dropped from the secondary to the cancelled stage of their extraordinary career in a world either blowing them aloft like soap-bubbles or quietly shelving them as supernumeraries. A gentleman — sweet vision! — shot by to the editor’s door, without even looking cursorily. He knocked. Mr. Tonans appeared and took him by the arm, dictating at a great rate; perceived Danvers, frowned at the female, and requested him to wait in the room, which the gentleman did, not once casting eye upon a woman. At last her mistress returned to her, escorted so far by Mr. Tonans, and he refreshingly bent his back to bow over her hand: so we have the satisfaction of knowing that we are not such poor creatures after all! Suffering in person, Danvers was revived by the little show of homage to her sex.

They descended the stairs.

‘You are not an Editor of a paper, but you may boast that you have been near the nest of one,’ Diana said, when they resumed their seats in the cab. She breathed deeply from time to time, as if under a weight, or relieved of it, but she seemed animated, and she dropped now and again a funny observation of the kind that tickled Danvers and caused the maid to boast of her everywhere as better than a Play.

At home, Danvers busied her hands to supply her mistress a cup of refreshing tea and a plate of biscuits.

Diana had stunned herself with the strange weight of the expedition, and had not a thought. In spite of tea at that hour, she slept soundly through the remainder of the night, dreamlessly till late into the morning.

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