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

Chapter 34

In which it is Darkly Seen How the Criminal’s Judge May Be Love’s Criminal.

When we are losing balance on a precipice we do not think much of the thing we have clutched for support. Our balance is restored and we have not fallen; that is the comfortable reflection: we stand as others do, and we will for the future be warned to avoid the dizzy stations which cry for resources beyond a common equilibrium, and where a slip precipitates us to ruin.

When, further, it is a woman planted in a burning blush, having to idealize her feminine weakness, that she may not rebuke herself for grovelling, the mean material acts by which she sustains a tottering position are speedily swallowed in the one pervading flame. She sees but an ashen curl of the path she has traversed to safety, if anything.

Knowing her lover was to come in the morning, Diana’s thoughts dwelt wholly upon the way to tell him, as tenderly as possible without danger to herself, that her time for entertaining was over until she had finished her book; indefinitely, therefore. The apprehension of his complaining pricked the memory that she had something to forgive. He had sunk her in her own esteem by compelling her to see her woman’s softness. But how high above all other men her experience of him could place him notwithstanding! He had bowed to the figure of herself, dearer than herself, that she set before him: and it was a true figure to the world; a too fictitious to any but the most knightly of lovers. She forgave; and a shudder seized her. — Snake! she rebuked the delicious run of fire through her veins; for she was not like the idol women of imperishable type, who are never for a twinkle the prey of the blood: statues created by man’s common desire to impress upon the sex his possessing pattern of them as domestic decorations.

When she entered the room to Dacier and they touched hands, she rejoiced in her coolness, without any other feeling or perception active. Not to be unkind, not too kind: this was her task. She waited for the passage of commonplaces.

‘You slept well, Percy?’

‘Yes; and you?’

‘I don’t think I even dreamed.’

They sat. She noticed the cloud on him and waited for his allusion to it, anxious concerning him simply.

Dacier flung the hair off his temples. Words of Titanic formation were hurling in his head at journals and journalists. He muttered his disgust of them.

‘Is there anything to annoy you in the papers today?’ she asked, and thought how handsome his face was in anger.

The paper of Mr. Tonans was named by him. ‘You have not seen it?

‘I have not opened it yet.’

He sprang up. ‘The truth is, those fellows can now afford to buy right and left, corrupt every soul alive! There must have been a spy at the keyhole. I’m pretty certain — I could swear it was not breathed to any ear but mine; and there it is this morning in black and white.’

‘What is?’ cried Diana, turning to him on her chair.

‘The thing I told you last night.’

Her lips worked, as if to spell the thing. ‘Printed, do you say?’ she rose.

‘Printed. In a leading article, loud as a trumpet; a hue and cry running from end to end of the country. And my Chief has already had the satisfaction of seeing the secret he confided to me yesterday roared in all the thoroughfares this morning. They’ve got the facts: his decision to propose it, and the date — the whole of it! But who could have betrayed it?’

For the first time since her midnight expedition she felt a sensation of the full weight of the deed. She heard thunder.

She tried to disperse the growing burden by an inward summons to contempt of the journalistic profession, but nothing would come. She tried to minimize it, and her brain succumbed. Her views of the deed last night and now throttled reason in two contending clutches. The enormity swelled its dimensions, taking shape, and pointing magnetically at her. She stood absolutely, amazedly, bare before it.

‘Is it of such very great importance?’ she said, like one supplicating him to lessen it.

‘A secret of State? If you ask whether it is of great importance to me, relatively it is of course. Nothing greater. Personally my conscience is clear. I never mentioned it — couldn’t have mentioned it — to any one but you. I’m not the man to blab secrets. He spoke to me because he knew he could trust me. To tell you the truth, I’m brought to a dead stop. I can’t make a guess.

I’m certain, from what he said, that he trusted me only with it: perfectly certain. I know him well. He was in his library, speaking in his usual conversational tone, deliberately, nor overloud. He stated that it was a secret between us.’

‘Will it affect him?’

‘This article? Why, naturally it will. You ask strange questions. A Minister coming to a determination like that! It affects him vitally. The members of the Cabinet are not so devoted. . . . It affects us all — the whole Party; may split it to pieces! There’s no reckoning the upset right and left. If it were false, it could be refuted; we could despise it as a trick of journalism. It’s true. There’s the mischief. Tonans did not happen to call here last night? — absurd! I left later than twelve.’

‘No, but let me hear,’ Diana said hurriedly, for the sake of uttering the veracious negative and to slur it over. ‘Let me hear . . . ’ She could not muster an idea.

Her delicious thrilling voice was a comfort to him. He lifted his breast high and thumped it, trying to smile. ‘After all, it’s pleasant being with you, Tony. Give me your hand — you may: I ‘m bothered — confounded by this morning surprise. It was like walking against the muzzle of a loaded cannon suddenly unmasked. One can’t fathom the mischief it will do. And I shall be suspected, and can’t quite protest myself the spotless innocent. Not even to my heart’s mistress! to the wife of the bosom! I suppose I’m no Roman. You won’t give me your hand? Tony, you might, seeing I am rather . . . ’

A rush of scalding tears flooded her eyes.

‘Don’t touch me,’ she said, and forced her sight to look straight at him through the fiery shower. ‘I have done positive mischief?’

‘You, my dear Tony?’ He doated on her face. ‘I don’t blame you, I blame myself. These things should never be breathed. Once in the air, the devil has hold of them. Don’t take it so much to heart. The thing’s bad enough to bear as it is. Tears! Let me have the hand. I came, on my honour, with the most honest intention to submit to your orders: but if I see you weeping in sympathy!’

‘Oh! for heaven’s sake,’ she caught her hands away from him, ‘don’t be generous. Whip me with scorpions. And don’t touch me,’ cried Diana. ‘Do you understand? You did not name it as a secret. I did not imagine it to be a secret of immense, immediate importance.’

‘But — what?’ shouted Dacier, stiffening.

He wanted her positive meaning, as she perceived, having hoped that it was generally taken and current, and the shock to him over.

‘I had . . . I had not a suspicion of doing harm, Percy.’

‘But what harm have you done? No riddles!’

His features gave sign of the break in their common ground, the widening gulf.

‘I went . . . it was a curious giddiness: I can’t account for it. I thought . . . ’

‘Went? You went where?’

‘Last night. I would speak intelligibly: my mind has gone. Ah! you look. It is not so bad as my feeling.’

‘But where did you go last night? What! — to Tonans?’

She drooped her head: she saw the track of her route cleaving the darkness in a demoniacal zig-zag and herself in demon’s grip.

‘Yes,’ she confronted him. ‘I went to Mr. Tonans.’

‘Why?’

‘I went to him —’

‘You went alone?’

‘I took my maid.’

‘Well?’

‘It was late when you left me . . . ’

‘Speak plainly!’

‘I am trying: I will tell you all.’

‘At once, if you please.’

‘I went to him — why? There is no accounting for it. He sneered constantly at my stale information.’

‘You gave him constant information?’

‘No: in our ordinary talk. He railed at me for being “out of it.” I must be childish: I went to show him — oh! my vanity! I think I must have been possessed.’

She watched the hardening of her lover’s eyes. They penetrated, and through them she read herself insufferably.

But it was with hesitation still that he said: ‘Then you betrayed me?’

‘Percy! I had not a suspicion of mischief.’

‘You went straight to this man?’

‘Not thinking . . . ’

‘You sold me to a journalist!’

‘I thought it was a secret of a day. I don’t think you — no, you did not tell me to keep it secret. A word from you would have been enough. I was in extremity.’

Dacier threw his hands up and broke away. He had an impulse to dash from the room, to get a breath of different air. He stood at the window, observing tradesmen’s carts, housemaids, blank doors, dogs, a beggar fifer. Her last words recurred to him. He turned: ‘You were in extremity, you said. What is the meaning of that? What extremity?’

Her large dark eyes flashed powerlessly; her shape appeared to have narrowed; her tongue, too, was a feeble penitent.

‘You ask a creature to recall her acts of insanity.’

‘There must be some signification in your words, I suppose.’

‘I will tell you as clearly as I can. You have the right to be my judge. I was in extremity — that is, I saw no means . . . I could not write: it was ruin coming.’

‘Ah? — you took payment for playing spy?’

‘I fancied I could retrieve . . . Now I see the folly, the baseness. I was blind.’

‘Then you sold me to a journalist for money?’

The intolerable scourge fetched a stifled scream from her and drove her pacing, but there was no escape; she returned to meet it.

The room was a cage to both of them, and every word of either was a sting.

‘Percy, I did not imagine he would use it — make use of it as he has done.’

‘Not? And when he paid for it?’

‘I fancied it would be merely of general service — if any.’

‘Distributed; I see: not leading to the exposure of the communicant!’

‘You are harsh; but I would not have you milder.’

The meekness of such a mischief-doer was revolting and called for the lash.

‘Do me the favour to name the sum. I am curious to learn what my imbecility was counted worth.’

‘No sum was named.’

‘Have I been bought for a song?’

‘It was a suggestion — no definite . . . nothing stipulated.’

‘You were to receive money!’

‘Leave me a bit of veiling! No, you shall behold me the thing I am. Listen . . . I was poor . . . ’

‘You might have applied to me.’

‘For money! That I could not do:

‘Better than betraying me, believe me.’

‘I had no thought of betraying. I hope I could have died rather than consciously betray.’

‘Money! My whole fortune was at your, disposal.’

‘I was beset with debts, unable to write, and, last night when you left me, abject. It seemed to me that you disrespected me . . . ’

‘Last night!’ Dacier cried with lashing emphasis.

‘It is evident to me that I have the reptile in me, Percy. Or else I am subject to lose my reason. I went . . . I went like a bullet: I cannot describe it; I was mad. I need a strong arm, I want help. I am given to think that I do my best and can be independent; I break down. I went blindly — now I see it — for the chance of recovering my position, as the gambler casts; and he wins or loses. With me it is the soul that is lost. No exact sum was named; thousands were hinted.’

‘You are hardly practical on points of business.’

‘I was insane.’

‘I think you said you slept well after it,’ Dacier remarked.

‘I had so little the idea of having done evilly, that I slept without a dream.’

He shrugged:— the consciences of women are such smooth deeps, or running shallows.

‘I have often wondered how your newspaper men got their information,’ he said, and muttered: ‘Money-women!’ adding: ‘Idiots to prime them! And I one of the leaky vessels! Well, we learn. I have been rather astonished at times of late at the scraps of secret knowledge displayed by Tonans. If he flourishes his thousands! The wonder is, he doesn’t corrupt the Ministers’ wives. Perhaps he does. Marriage will become a danger-sign to Parliamentary members. Foreign women do these tricks . . . women of a well-known stamp. It is now a full year, I think, since I began to speak to you of secret matters — and congratulated myself, I recollect, on your thirst for them.’

‘Percy, if you suspect that I have uttered one word before last night, you are wrong. I cannot paint my temptation or my loss of sense last night. Previously I was blameless. I thirsted, yes; but in the hope of helping you.’

He looked at her. She perceived how glitteringly loveless his eyes had grown. It was her punishment; and though the enamoured woman’s heart protested it excessive, she accepted it.

‘I can never trust you again,’ he said.

‘I fear you will not,’ she replied.

His coming back to her after the departure of the guests last night shone on him in splendid colours of single-minded loverlike devotion. ‘I came to speak to my own heart. I thought it would give you pleasure; thought I could trust you utterly. I had not the slightest conception I was imperilling my honour . . .!’

He stopped. Her bloodless fixed features revealed an intensity of anguish that checked him. Only her mouth, a little open for the sharp breath, appeared dumbly beseeching. Her large eyes met his like steel to steel, as of one who would die fronting the weapon.

He strangled a loathsome inclination to admire.

‘So good bye,’ he said.

She moved her lips.

He said no more. In half a minute he was gone.

To her it was the plucking of life out of her breast.

She pressed her hands where heart had been. The pallor and cold of death took her body.

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