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

Chapter 36

Is Conclusive as to the Heartlessness of Women with Brains

Hymenaeal rumours are those which might be backed to run a victorious race with the tale of evil fortune; and clearly for the reason that man’s livelier half is ever alert to speed them. They travel with an astonishing celerity over the land, like flames of the dry beacon-faggots of old time in announcement of the invader or a conquest, gathering as they go: wherein, to say nothing of their vastly wider range, they surpass the electric wires. Man’s nuptial half is kindlingly concerned in the launch of a new couple; it is the business of the fair sex: and man himself (very strangely, but nature quickens him still) lends a not unfavouring eye to the preparations of the matrimonial vessel for its oily descent into the tides, where billows will soon be rising, captain and mate soon discussing the fateful question of who is commander. We consent, it appears, to hope again for mankind; here is another chance! Or else, assuming the happiness of the pair, that pomp of ceremonial, contrasted with the little wind-blown candle they carry between them, catches at our weaker fibres.

After so many ships have foundered, some keel up, like poisoned fish, at the first drink of water, it is a gallant spectacle, let us avow; and either the world perpetuating it is heroical or nature incorrigible in the species. Marriages are unceasing. Friends do it, and enemies; the unknown contractors of this engagement, or armistice, inspire an interest. It certainly is both exciting and comforting to hear that man and woman are ready to join in a mutual affirmative, say Yes together again. It sounds like the end of the war.

The proclamation of the proximate marriage of a young Minister of State and the greatest heiress of her day; notoriously ‘The young Minister of State’ of a famous book written by the beautiful, now writhing, woman madly enamoured of him — and the heiress whose dowry could purchase a Duchy; this was a note to make the gossips of England leap from their beds at the midnight hour and wag tongues in the market-place. It did away with the political hubbub over the Tonans article, and let it noise abroad like nonsense. The Hon. Percy Dacier espouses Miss Asper; and she rescues him from the snares of a siren, he her from the toils of the Papists. She would have gone over to them, she was going when, luckily for the Protestant Faith, Percy Dacier intervened with his proposal. Town and country buzzed the news; and while that dreary League trumpeted about the business of the nation, a people suddenly become Oriental chattered of nothing but the blissful union to be celebrated in princely state, with every musical accessory, short of Operatic.

Lady Wathin was an active agent in this excitement. The excellent woman enjoyed marriages of High Life: which, as there is presumably wealth to support them, are manifestly under sanction: and a marriage that she could consider one of her own contrivance, had a delicate flavour of a marriage in the family; not quite equal to the seeing a dear daughter of her numerous progeny conducted to the altar, but excelling it in the pomp that bids the heavens open. She and no other spread the tidings of Miss Asper’s debating upon the step to Rome at the very instant of Percy Dacier’s declaration of his love; and it was a beautiful struggle, that of the half-dedicated nun and her deep-rooted earthly passion, love prevailing! She sent word to Lady Dunstane: ‘You know the interest I have always taken in dear Constance Aspen’ etc.; inviting her to come on a visit a week before the end of the month, that she might join in the ceremony of a wedding ‘likely to be the grandest of our time.’ Pitiful though it was, to think of the bridal pair having but eight or ten days at the outside, for a honeymoon, the beauty of their ‘mutual devotion to duty’ was urged by Lady Wathin upon all hearers.

Lady Dunstane declined the invitation. She waited to hear from her friend, and the days went by; she could only sorrow for her poor Tony, divining her state. However little of wrong in the circumstances, they imposed a silence on her decent mind, and no conceivable shape of writing would transmit condolences. She waited, with a dull heartache: by no means grieving at Dacier’s engagement to the heiress; until Redworth animated her, as the bearer of rather startling intelligence, indirectly relating to the soul she loved. An accident in the street had befallen Mr. Warwick. Redworth wanted to know whether Diana should be told of it, though he had no particulars to give; and somewhat to his disappointment, Lady Dunstane said she would write. She delayed, thinking the accident might not be serious; and the information of it to Diana surely would be so. Next day at noon her visitor was Lady Wathin, evidently perturbed and anxious to say more than she dared: but she received no assistance. After beating the air in every direction, especially dwelling on the fond reciprocal affection of the two devoted lovers, to be united within three days’ time, Lady Wathin said at last: ‘And is it not shocking! I talk of a marriage and am appalled by a death. That poor man died last night in the hospital. I mean poor Mr. Warwick. He was recovering, getting strong and well, and he was knocked down at a street-crossing and died last night. It is a warning to us!’

‘Mr. Redworth happened to hear of it at his Club, near which the accident occurred, and he called at the hospital. Mr. Warwick was then alive,’ said Lady Dunstane; adding: ‘Well, if prevention is better than cure, as we hear! Accidents are the specific for averting the maladies of age, which are a certain crop!’

Lady Wathin’s eyelids worked and her lips shut fast at the cold-hearted remark void of meaning.

She sighed. ‘So ends a life of misery, my dear!’

‘You are compassionate.’

‘I hope so. But . . . Indeed I must speak, if you will let me. I think of the living.’

Lady Dunstane widened her eyes. ‘Of Mrs. Warwick?’

‘She has now the freedom she desired. I think of others. Forgive me, but Constance Asper is to me as a daughter. I have perhaps no grounds for any apprehension. Love so ardent, so sincere, was never shown by bridegroom elect: and it is not extraordinary to those acquainted with dear Constance. But — one may be a worshipped saint and experience defection. The terrible stories one hears of a power of fascination almost . . .!’ Lady Wathin hung for the word.

‘Infernal,’ said Lady Dunstane, whose brows had been bent inquiringly. ‘Have no fear. The freedom you allude to will not be used to interfere with any entertainment in prospect. It was freedom my friend desired. Now that her jewel is restored to her, she is not the person to throw it away, be sure. And pray, drop the subject.’

‘One may rely . . . you think?’

‘Oh! Oh!’

‘This release coming just before the wedding . . .!’

‘I should hardly suppose the man to be the puppet you depict, or indicate.’

‘It is because men — so many — are not puppets that one is conscious of alarm.’

‘Your previous remark,’ said Lady Dunstane, ‘sounded superstitious. Your present one has an antipodal basis. But, as for your alarm, check it: and spare me further. My friend has acknowledged powers. Considering that, she does not use them, you should learn to respect her.’

Lady Wathin bowed stiffly. She refused to partake of lunch, having, she said, satisfied her conscience by the performance of a duty and arranged with her flyman to catch a train. Her cousin Lady Dunstane smiled loftily at everything she uttered, and she felt that if a woman like this Mrs. Warwick could put division between blood-relatives, she could do worse, and was to be dreaded up to the hour of the nuptials.

‘I meant no harm in coming,’ she said, at the shaking of hands.

‘No, no; I understand,’ said her hostess: ‘you are hen-hearted over your adopted brood. The situation is perceptible and your intention creditable.’

As one of the good women of the world, Lady Wathin in departing was indignant at the tone and dialect of a younger woman not modestly concealing her possession of the larger brain. Brains in women she both dreaded and detested; she believed them to be devilish. Here were instances:— they had driven poor Sir Lukin to evil courses, and that poor Mr. Warwick straight under the wheels of a cab. Sir Lukin’s name was trotting in public with a naughty Mrs. Fryar–Gunnett’s: Mrs. Warwick might still trim her arts to baffle the marriage. Women with brains, moreover, are all heartless: they have no pity for distress, no horror of catastrophes, no joy in the happiness of the deserving. Brains in men advance a household to station; but brains in women divide it and are the wrecking of society. Fortunately Lady Wathin knew she could rally a powerful moral contingent, the aptitude of which for a one-minded cohesion enabled it to crush those fractional daughters of mischief. She was a really good woman of the world, heading a multitude; the same whom you are accustomed to hear exalted; lucky in having had a guided girlhood, a thick-curtained prudence; and in having stock in the moral funds, shares in the sentimental tramways. Wherever the world laid its hoards or ran its lines, she was found, and forcible enough to be eminent; though at fixed hours of the day, even as she washed her hands, she abjured worldliness: a performance that cleansed her. If she did not make morality appear loveable to the objects of her dislike, it was owing to her want of brains to see the origin, nature and right ends of morality. But a world yet more deficient than she, esteemed her cordially for being a bulwark of the present edifice; which looks a solid structure when the microscope is not applied to its components.

Supposing Percy Dacier a dishonourable tattler as well as an icy lover, and that Lady Wathin, through his bride, had become privy to the secret between him and Diana? There is reason to think that she would have held it in terror over the baneful woman, but not have persecuted her: for she was by no means the active malignant of theatrical plots. No, she would have charged it upon the possession of brains by women, and have had a further motive for inciting the potent dignitary her husband to employ his authority to repress the sex’s exercise of those fell weapons, hurtful alike to them and all coming near them.

So extreme was her dread of Mrs. Warwick, that she drove from the London railway station to see Constance and be reassured by her tranquil aspect.

Sweet Constance and her betrothed Percy were together, examining a missal.

Lady Dunstane despatched a few words of the facts to Diana. She hoped to hear from her; rather hoped, for the moment, not to see her. No answer came. The great day of the nuptials came and passed. She counted on her husband’s appearance the next morning, as the good gentleman made a point of visiting her, to entertain the wife he adored, whenever he had a wallet of gossip that would overlay the blank of his absence. He had been to the church of the wedding — he did not say with whom: all the world was there; and he rapturously described the ceremony, stating that it set women weeping and caused him to behave like a fool.

‘You are impressionable,’ said his wife.

He murmured something in praise of the institution of marriage — when celebrated impressively, it seemed.

‘Tony calls the social world “the theatre of appetites,” as we have it at present,’ she said; ‘and the world at a wedding is, one may reckon, in the second act of the hungry tragicomedy.’

‘Yes, there’s the breakfast,’ Sir Lukin assented. Mrs. Fryar–Gunnett was much more intelligible to him: in fact, quite so, as to her speech.

Emma’s heart now yearned to her Tony: Consulting her strength, she thought she might journey to London, and on the third morning after the Dacier–Asper marriage, she started.

Diana’s door was open to Arthur Rhodes when Emma reached it.

‘Have you seen her?’ she asked him.

His head shook dolefully. ‘Mrs. Warwick is unwell; she has been working too hard.’

‘You also, I’m afraid.’

‘No.’ He could deny that, whatever the look of him.

‘Come to me at Copsley soon,’ said she, entering to Danvers in the passage.

‘My mistress is upstairs, my lady,’ said Danvers. ‘She is lying on her bed.’

‘She is ill?’

‘She has been lying on her bed ever since.’

‘Since what?’ Lady Dunstane spoke sharply.

Danvers retrieved her indiscretion. ‘Since she heard of the accident, my lady.’

‘Take my name to her. Or no: I can venture.’

‘I am not allowed to go in and speak to her. You will find the room quite dark, my lady, and very cold. It is her command. My mistress will not let me light the fire; and she has not eaten or drunk of anything since . . . She will die, if you do not persuade her to take nourishment: a little, for a beginning. It wants the beginning.’

Emma went upstairs, thinking of the enigmatical maid, that she must be a good soul after all. Diana’s bedroom door was opened slowly.

‘You will not be able to see at first, my lady,’ Danvers whispered. ‘The bed is to the left, and a chair. I would bring in a candle, but it hurts her eyes. She forbids it.’

Emma stepped in. The chill thick air of the unlighted London room was cavernous. She almost forgot the beloved of her heart in the thought that a living woman had been lying here more than two days and nights, fasting. The proof of an uttermost misery revived the circumstances within her to render her friend’s presence in this desert of darkness credible. She found the bed by touch, silently, and distinguished a dark heap on the bed; she heard no breathing. She sat and listened; then she stretched out her hand and met her Tony’s. It lay open. It was the hand of a drowned woman.

Shutters and curtains and the fireless grate gave the room an appalling likeness to the vaults.

So like to the home of death it seemed, that in a few minutes the watcher had lost count of time and kept but a wormy memory of the daylight. She dared not speak, for some fear of startling; for the worse fear of never getting answer. Tony’s hand was lifeless. Her clasp of it struck no warmth.

She stung herself with bitter reproaches for having let common mundane sentiments, worthy of a Lady Wathin, bar her instant offer of her bosom to the beloved who suffered in this depth of mortal agony. Tony’s love of a man, as she should have known, would be wrought of the elements of our being: when other women named Happiness, she said Life; in division, Death. Her body lying still upon the bed here was a soul borne onward by the river of Death.

The darkness gave sight after a while, like a curtain lifting on a veil: the dead light of the underworld. Tony lay with her face up, her underlip dropped; straight from head to feet. The outline of her face, without hue of it, could be seen: sign of the hapless women that have souls in love. Hateful love of men! Emma thought, and was; moved to feel at the wrist for her darling’s pulse. He has, killed her! the thought flashed, as, with pangs chilling her frame, the pressure at the wrist continued insensible of the faintest beat. She clasped it, trembling, in pain to stop an outcry.

‘It is Emmy,’ said the voice.

Emma’s heart sprang to heaven on a rush of thanks.

‘My Tony,’ she breathed softly.

She hung for a further proof of life in the motionless body. ‘Tony!’ she said.

The answer was at her hand, a thread-like return of her clasp.

‘It is Emmy come to stay with you, never to leave you.’

The thin still answer was at her hand a moment; the fingers fell away. A deep breath was taken twice to say:

‘Don’t talk to me.’

Emma retained the hand. She was warned not to press it by the deadness following its effort to reply.

But Tony lived; she had given proof of life. Over this little wavering taper in the vaults Emma cowered, cherishing the hand, silently hoping for the voice.

It came: ‘Winter.’

‘It is a cold winter, Tony.’

‘My dear will be cold.’

‘I will light the fire.’

Emma lost no time in deciding to seek the match-box. The fire was lit and it flamed; it seemed a revival in the room. Coming back to the bedside, she discerned her Tony’s lacklustre large dark eyes and her hollow cheeks: her mouth open to air as to the drawing-in of a sword; rather as to the releaser than the sustainer. Her feet were on the rug her maid had placed to cover them. Emma leaned across the bed to put them to her breast, beneath her fur mantle, and held them there despite the half-animate tug of the limbs and the shaft of iciness they sent to her very heart. When she had restored them to some warmth, she threw aside her bonnet and lying beside Tony, took her in her arms, heaving now and then a deep sigh.

She kissed her cheek.

‘It is Emmy.’

‘Kiss her.’

‘I have no strength.’

Emma laid her face on the lips. They were cold; even the breath between them cold.

‘Has Emmy been long . . .?’

‘Here, dear? I think so. I am with my darling.’

Tony moaned. The warmth and the love were bringing back her anguish.

She said: ‘I have been happy. It is not hard to go.’

Emma strained to her. ‘Tony will wait for her soul’s own soul to go, the two together.’

There was a faint convulsion in the body. ‘If I cry, I shall go in pain.’

‘You are in Emmy’s arms, my beloved.’

Tony’s eyes closed for forgetfulness under that sensation. A tear ran down from her, but the pain was lag and neighboured sleep, like the pleasure.

So passed the short winter day, little spoken.

Then Emma bethought her of a way of leading Tony to take food, and she said: ‘I shall stay with you; I shall send for clothes; I am rather hungry. Don’t stir, dear. I will be mistress of the house.’

She went below to the kitchen, where a few words in the ear of a Frenchwoman were sufficient to waken immediate comprehension of what was wanted, and smart service: within ten minutes an appetizing bouillon sent its odour over the bedroom. Tony, days back, had said her last to the act of eating; but Emma sipping at the spoon and expressing satisfaction, was a pleasant picture. The bouillon smelt pleasantly.

‘Your servants love you,’ Emma said.

‘Ah, poor good souls.’

‘They crowded up to me to hear of you. Madame of course at the first word was off to her pots. And we English have the habit of calling ourselves the practical people! — This bouillon is consummate. — However, we have the virtues of barbarians; we can love and serve for love. I never tasted anything so good. I could become a glutton.’

‘Do,’ said Tony.

‘I should be ashamed to “drain the bowl” all to myself: a solitary toper is a horrid creature, unless he makes a song of it.’

‘Emmy makes a song of it to me.’

‘But “pledge me” is a noble saying, when you think of humanity’s original hunger for the whole. It is there that our civilizing commenced, and I am particularly fond of hearing the call. It is grandly historic. So pledge me, Tony. We two can feed from one spoon; it is a closer, bond than the loving cup. I want you just to taste it and excuse my gluttony.’

Tony murmured, ‘No.’ The spoon was put to her mouth. She sighed to resist. The stronger will compelled her to move her lips. Emma fed her as a child, and nature sucked for life.

The first effect was a gush of tears.

Emma lay with her that night, when the patient was, the better sleeper. But during the night at intervals she had the happiness of feeling Tony’s hand travelling to make sure of her.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/meredith/george/diana-of-the-crossways/chapter36.html

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