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

Chapter 37

An Exhibition of Some Champions of the Stricken Lady

Close upon the hour of ten every morning the fortuitous meeting of two gentlemen at Mrs. Warwick’s housedoor was a signal for punctiliously stately greetings, the salutation of the raised hat and a bow of the head from a position of military erectness, followed by the remark: ‘I trust you are well, sir’: to which the reply: ‘I am very well, sir, and trust you are the same,’ was deemed a complimentary fulfilment of their mutual obligation in presence. Mr. Sullivan Smith’s initiative imparted this exercise of formal manners to Mr. Arthur Rhodes, whose renewed appearance, at the minute of his own arrival, he viewed, as he did not conceal, with a disappointed and a reproving eye. The inquiry after the state of Mrs. Warwick’s health having received its tolerably comforting answer from the footman, they left their cards in turn, then descended the doorsteps, faced for the performance of the salute, and departed their contrary ways.

The pleasing intelligence refreshed them one morning, that they would be welcomed by Lady Dunstane. Thereupon Mr. Sullivan Smith wheeled about to Mr. Arthur Rhodes and observed to him: ‘Sir, I might claim, by right of seniority, to be the foremost of us two in offering my respects to the lady, but the way is open to you.’

‘Sir,’ said Mr. Arthur Rhodes, ‘permit me to defer to your many superior titles to that distinction.’

‘The honour, sir, lies rather in the bestowing than in the taking.’

‘I venture to think, sir, that though I cannot speak pure Castilian, I require no lesson from a Grandee of Spain in acknowledging the dues of my betters.’

‘I will avow myself conquered, sir, by your overpowering condescension;’ said Mr. Sullivan Smith; ‘and I entreat you — to ascribe my acceptance of your brief retirement to the urgent character of the business I have at heart.’

He laid his fingers on the panting spot, and bowed.

Mr. Arthur Rhodes, likewise bowing, deferentially fell to rearward.

‘If I mistake not,’ said the Irish gentleman, ‘I am indebted to Mr. Rhodes; and we have been joint participators in the hospitality of Mrs. Warwick’s table.’

The English gentleman replied: ‘It was there that I first had the pleasure of an acquaintance which is graven on my memory, as the words of the wise king on tablets of gold and silver.’

Mr. Sullivan Smith gravely smiled at the unwonted match he had found in ceremonious humour, in Saxonland, and saying: ‘I shall not long detain you, Mr. Rhodes,’ he passed through the doorway.

Arthur waited for him, pacing up and down, for a quarter of an hour, when a totally different man reappeared in the same person, and was the Sullivan Smith of the rosy beaming features and princely heartiness. He was accosted: ‘Now, my dear boy, it’s your turn to try if you have a chance, and good luck go with ye. I’ve said what I could on your behalf, for you’re one of ten thousand in this country, you are.’

Mr. Sullivan Smith had solemnified himself to proffer a sober petition within the walls of the newly widowed lady’s house; namely, for nothing less than that sweet lady’s now unfettered hand: and it had therefore been perfectly natural to him, until his performance ended with the destruction of his hopes, to deliver himself in the high Castilian manner. Quite unexpected, however, was the reciprocal loftiness of tone spontaneously adopted by the young English squire, for whom, in consequence, he conceived a cordial relish; and as he paced in the footsteps of Arthur, anxious to quiet his curiosity by hearing how it had fared with one whom he had to suppose the second applicant, he kept ejaculating: ‘Not a bit! The fellow can’t be Saxon! And she had a liking for him. She’s nigh coming of the age when a woman takes to the chicks. Better he than another, if it’s to be any one. For he’s got fun in him; he carries his own condiments, instead of borrowing from the popular castors, as is their way over here. But I might have known there ‘s always sure to be salt and savour in the man she covers with her wing. Excepting, if you please, my dear lady, a bad shot you made at a rascal cur, no more worthy of you than Beelzebub of Paradise. No matter! The daughters’ of Erin must share the fate of their mother Isle, that their tears may shine in the burst of sun to follow. For personal and patriotic motives, I would have cheered her and been like a wild ass combed and groomed and tamed by the adorable creature. But her friend says there ‘s not a whisk of a chance for me, and I must roam the desert, kicking up, and worshipping the star I hail brightest. They know me not, who think I can’t worship. Why, what were I without my star? At best a pickled porker.’

Sullivan Smith became aware of a ravishing melodiousness in the soliloquy, as well as a clean resemblance in the simile. He would certainly have proceeded to improvize impassioned verse, if he had not seen Arthur Rhodes on the pavement. ‘So, here’s the boy. Query, the face he wears.’

‘How kind of you to wait,’ said Arthur.

‘We’ll call it sympathy, for convenience,’ rejoined Sullivan Smith. ‘Well, and what next?’

‘You know as much as I do. Thank heaven, she is recovering.’

‘Is that all?’

‘Why, what more?’

Arthur was jealously, inspected.

‘You look open-hearted, my dear boy.’ Sullivan Smith blew the sound of a reflected ahem. ‘Excuse me for cornemusing in your company,’ he said. ‘But seriously, there was only one thing to pardon your hurrying to the lady’s door at such a season, when the wind tells tales to the world. She’s down with a cold, you know.’

‘An influenza,’ said Arthur.

The simplicity of the acquiescence was vexatious to a champion desirous of hostilities, to vindicate the lady, in addition to his anxiety to cloak her sad plight.

‘She caught it from contact with one of the inhabitants of this country. ’Tis the fate of us Irish, and we’re condemned to it for the sin of getting tired of our own. I begin to sneeze when I land at Holyhead. Unbutton a waistcoat here, in the hope of meeting a heart, and you’re lucky in escaping a pulmonary attack of no common severity, while the dog that infected you scampers off, to celebrate his honeymoon mayhap. Ah, but call at her house in shoals, the world’ll soon be saying it’s worse than a coughing cold. If you came to lead her out of it in triumph, the laugh ‘d be with you, and the lady well covered. D’ ye understand?’

The allusion to the dog’s honeymoon had put Arthur Rhodes on the track of the darting cracker-metaphor.

‘I think I do,’ he said. ‘She will soon be at Copsley — Lady Dunstane’s house, on the hills — and there we can see her.’

‘And that’s next to the happiness of consoling — if only it had been granted! She’s not an ordinary widow, to be caught when the tear of lamentation has opened a practicable path or water-way to the poor nightcapped jewel within. So, and you’re a candid admirer, Mr. Rhodes! Well, and I’ll be one with you; for there’s not a star in the firmament more deserving of homage than that lady.’

‘Let’s walk in the park and talk of her,’ said Arthur. ‘There’s no sweeter subject to me.’

His boyish frankness rejoiced Sullivan Smith. ‘As long as you like! — nor to me!’ he exclaimed. ‘And that ever since I first beheld her on the night of a Ball in Dublin: before I had listened to a word of her speaking: and she bore her father’s Irish name:— none of your Warwicks and your . . . but let the cur go barking. He can’t tell what he’s lost; perhaps he doesn’t care. And after inflicting his hydrophobia on her tender fame! Pooh, sir; you call it a civilized country, where you and I and dozens of others are ready to start up as brothers of the lady, to defend her, and are paralyzed by the Law. ’Tis a law they’ve instituted for the protection of dirty dogs — their majority!’

‘I owe more to Mrs. Warwick than to any soul I know,’ said Arthur.

‘Let ‘s hear,’ quoth Sullivan Smith; proceeding: ‘She’s the Arabian Nights in person, that’s sure; and Shakespeare’s Plays, tragic and comic; and the Book of Celtic History; and Erin incarnate — down with a cold, no matter where; but we know where it was caught. So there’s a pretty library for who’s to own her now she’s enfranchized by circumstances; and a poetical figure too!’

He subsided for his companion to rhapsodize.

Arthur was overcharged with feeling, and could say only: ‘It would be another world to me if I lost her.’

‘True; but what of the lady?’

‘No praise of mine could do her justice.’

‘That may be, but it’s negative of yourself, and not a portrait of the object. Hasn’t she the brain of Socrates — or better, say Minerva, on the bust of Venus, and the remainder of her finished off to an exact resemblance of her patronymic Goddess of the bow and quiver?’

‘She has a wise head and is beautiful.’

‘And chaste.’

Arthur reddened: he was prepared to maintain it, could not speak it.

‘She is to us in this London, what the run of water was to Theocritus in Sicily: the nearest to the visibly divine,’ he said, and was applauded.

‘Good, and on you go. Top me a few superlatives on that, and I ‘m your echo, my friend. Isn’t the seeing and listening to her like sitting under the silvery canopy of a fountain in high Summer?’

‘All the comparisons are yours,’ Arthur said enviously.

‘Mr. Rhodes, you are a poet, I believe, and all you require to loosen your tongue is a drop of Bacchus, so if you will do me the extreme honour to dine with me at my Club this evening, we’ll resume the toast that should never be uttered dry. You reprove me justly, my friend.’

Arthur laughed and accepted. The Club was named, and the hour, and some items of the little dinner: the birds and the year of the wines.

It surprised him to meet Mr. Redworth at the table of his host. A greater surprise was the partial thaw in Redworth’s bearing toward him. But, as it was partial, and he a youth and poor, not even the genial influences of Bacchus could lift him to loosen his tongue under the repressing presence of the man he knew to be his censor, though Sullivan Smith encouraged him with praises and opportunities. He thought of the many occasions when Mrs. Warwick’s art of management had produced a tacit harmony between them. She had no peer. The dinner failed of the pleasure he had expected from it. Redworth’s bluntness killed the flying metaphors, and at the end of the entertainment he and Sullivan Smith were drumming upon politics.

‘Fancies he has the key of the Irish difficulty!’ said the latter, clapping hand on his shoulder, by way of blessing, as they parted at the Club-steps.

Redworth asked Arthur Rhodes the way he was going, and walked beside him.

‘I suppose you take exercise; don’t get colds and that kind of thing,’ he remarked in the old bullying fashion; and changed it abruptly. ‘I am glad to have met you this evening. I hope you’ll dine with me one day next week. Have you seen Mrs. Warwick lately?’

‘She is unwell; she has been working too hard,’ said Arthur.

‘Seriously unwell, do you mean?’

‘Lady Dunstane is at her house, and speaks of her recovering.’

‘Ah. You’ve not seen her?’

‘Not yet.’

‘Well, good-night.’

Redworth left him, and only when moved by gratitude to the lad for his mention of Mrs. Warwick’s ‘working too hard,’ as the cause of her illness, recollected the promised dinner and the need for having his address.

He had met Sullivan Smith accidentally in the morning and accepted the invitation to meet young Rhodes, because these two, of all men living, were for the moment dearest to him, as Diana Warwick’s true and simple champions; and he had intended a perfect cordiality toward them both; the end being a semi-wrangle with the patriot, and a patronizing bluntness with the boy; who, by the way, would hardly think him sincere in the offer of a seat at his table. He owned himself incomplete. He never could do the thing he meant, in the small matters not leading to fortune. But they led to happiness! Redworth was guilty of a sigh: for now Diana Warwick stood free; doubly free, he was reduced to reflect in a wavering dubiousness. Her more than inclination for Dacier, witnessed by him, and the shot of the world, flying randomly on the subject, had struck this cuirassier, making light of his armour, without causing any change of his habitual fresh countenance. As for the scandal, it had never shaken his faith in her nature. He thought of the passion. His heart struck at Diana’s, and whatever might by chance be true in the scandal affected him little, if but her heart were at liberty. That was the prize he coveted, having long read the nature of the woman and wedded his spirit to it. She would complete him.

Of course, infatuated men argue likewise, and scandal does not move them. At a glance, the lower instincts and the higher spirit appear equally to have the philosophy of overlooking blemishes. The difference between appetite and love is shown when a man, after years of service, can hear and see, and admit the possible, and still desire in worship; knowing that we of earth are begrimed and must be cleansed for presentation daily on our passage through the miry ways, but that our souls, if flame of a soul shall have come of the agony of flesh, are beyond the baser mischances: partaking of them indeed, but sublimely. Now Redworth believed in the soul of Diana. For him it burned, and it was a celestial radiance about her, unquenched by her shifting fortunes, her wilfulnesses and, it might be, errors. She was a woman and weak; that is, not trained for strength. She was a soul; therefore perpetually pointing to growth in purification. He felt it, and even discerned it of her, if he could not have phrased it. The something sovereignty characteristic that aspired in Diana enchained him. With her, or rather with his thought of her soul, he understood the right union of women and men, from the roots to the flowering heights of that rare graft. She gave him comprehension of the meaning of love: a word in many mouths, not often explained. With her, wound in his idea of her, he perceived it to signify a new start in our existence, a finer shoot of the tree stoutly planted in good gross earth; the senses running their live sap, and the minds companioned, and the spirits made one by the whole-natured conjunction. In Booth, a happy prospect for the sons and daughters of Earth, divinely indicating more than happiness: the speeding of us, compact of what we are, between the ascetic rocks and the sensual whirlpools, to the creation of certain nobler races, now very dimly imagined.

Singularly enough, the man of these feelings was far from being a social rebel. His Diana conjured them forth in relation to her, but was not on his bosom to enlighten him generally. His notions of citizenship tolerated the female Pharisees, as ladies offering us an excellent social concrete where quicksands abound, and without quite justifying the Lady Wathins and Constance Aspers of the world, whose virtues he could set down to accident or to acid blood, he considered them supportable and estimable where the Mrs. Fryar–Gunnetts were innumerable, threatening to become a majority; as they will constantly do while the sisterhood of the chaste are wattled in formalism and throned in sourness.

Thoughts of Diana made phantoms of the reputable and their reverse alike. He could not choose but think of her. She was free; and he too; and they were as distant as the horizon sail and the aft-floating castaway. Her passion for Dacier might have burnt out her heart. And at present he had no claim to visit her, dared not intrude. He would have nothing to say, if he went, save to answer questions upon points of business: as to which, Lady Dunstane would certainly summon him when he was wanted.

Riding in the park on a frosty morning, he came upon Sir Lukin, who looked gloomy and inquired for news of Diana Warwick, saying that his wife had forbidden him to call at her house just yet. ‘She’s got a cold, you know,’ said Sir Lukin; adding, ‘confoundedly hard on women! — eh? Obliged to keep up a show. And I’d swear, by all that’s holy, Diana Warwick hasn’t a spot, not a spot, to reproach herself with. I fancy I ought to know women by this time. And look here, Redworth, last night — that is, I mean yesterday evening, I broke with a woman — a lady of my acquaintance, you know, because she would go on scandal-mongering about Diana Warwick. I broke with her. I told her I’d have out any man who abused Diana Warwick, and I broke with her. By Jove! Redworth, those women can prove spitfires. They’ve bags of venom under their tongues, barley-sugar though they look — and that’s her colour. But I broke with her for good. I doubt if I shall ever call on her again. And in point of fact, I won’t.’

Mrs. Fryar–Gunnett was described in the colouring of the lady.

Sir Lukin, after some further remarks, rode on, and Redworth mused on a moral world that allows a woman of Mrs. Fryar–Gunnett’s like to hang on to it, and to cast a stone at Diana; forgetful, in his championship, that Diana was not disallowed a similar licence.

When he saw Emma Dunstane, some days later, she was in her carriage driving, as she said, to Lawyerland, for an interview with old Mr. Braddock, on her friend’s affairs. He took a seat beside her. ‘No, Tony is not well,’ she replied to his question, under the veil of candour. ‘She is recovering, but she — you can understand — suffered a shock. She is not able to attend to business, and certain things have to be done.’

‘I used to be her man of business,’ Redworth observed.

‘She speaks of your kind services. This is mere matter for lawyers.’

‘She is recovering?’

‘You may see her at Copsley next week. You can come down on Wednesdays or Saturdays?’

‘Any day. Tell her I want her opinion upon the state of things.’

‘It will please her; but you will have to describe the state of things.’

Emma feared she had said too much. She tried candour again for concealment. ‘My poor Tony has been struck down low. I suppose it is like losing a diseased limb:— she has her freedom, at the cost of a blow to the system.’

‘She may be trusted for having strength,’ said Redworth.’

‘Yes.’ Emma’s mild monosyllable was presently followed by an exclamation: ‘One has to experience the irony of Fate to comprehend how cruel it is!’ Then she remembered that such language was peculiarly abhorrent to him.

‘Irony of Fate!’ he echoed her. ‘I thought you were above that literary jargon.’

‘And I thought I was: or thought it would be put in a dialect practically explicable,’ she answered, smiling at the lion roused.

‘Upon my word,’ he burst out, ‘I should like to write a book of Fables, showing how donkeys get into grinding harness, and dogs lose their bones, and fools have their sconces cracked, and all run jabbering of the irony of Fate, to escape the annoyance of tracing the causes. And what are they? nine times out of ten, plain want of patience, or some debt for indulgence. There’s a subject:— let some one write, Fables in illustration of the irony of Fate: and I’ll undertake to tack-on my grandmother’s maxims for a moral to teach of ’em. We prate of that irony when we slink away from the lesson — the rod we conjure. And you to talk of Fate! It’s the seed we sow, individually or collectively. I’m bound-up in the prosperity of the country, and if the ship is wrecked, it ruins my fortune, but not me, unless I’m bound-up in myself. At least I hope that’s my case.’

He apologized for intruding Mr. Thomas Redworth.

His hearer looked at him, thinking he required a more finely pointed gift of speech for the ironical tongue, but relishing the tonic directness of his faculty of reason while she considered that the application of the phrase might be brought home to him so as to render ‘my Grandmother’s moral’ a conclusion less comfortingly, if quite intelligibly, summary. And then she thought of Tony’s piteous instance; and thinking with her heart, the tears insisted on that bitter irony of the heavens, which bestowed the long-withheld and coveted boon when it was empty of value or was but as a handful of spices to a shroud.

Perceiving the moisture in her look, Redworth understood that it was foolish to talk rationally. But on her return to her beloved, the real quality of the man had overcome her opposing state of sentiment, and she spoke of him with an iteration and throb in the voice that set a singular query whirring round Diana’s ears. Her senses were too heavy for a suspicion.

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