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

Chapter 39

Of Nature with One of Her Cultivated Daughters and a Short Excursion in Anti-Climax.

A mind that after a long season of oblivion in pain returns to wakefulness without a keen edge for the world, is much in danger of souring permanently. Diana’s love of nature saved her from the dire mischance during a two months’ residence at Copsley, by stupefying her senses to a state like the barely conscious breathing on the verge of sleep. February blew South-west for the pairing of the birds. A broad warm wind rolled clouds of every ambiguity of form in magnitude over peeping azure, or skimming upon lakes of blue and lightest green, or piling the amphitheatre for majestic sunset. Or sometimes those daughters of the wind flew linked and low, semi-purple, threatening the shower they retained and teaching gloom to rouse a songful nest in the bosom of the viewer. Sometimes they were April, variable to soar with rain-skirts and sink with sunshafts. Or they drenched wood and field for a day and opened on the high South-western star. Daughters of the wind, but shifty daughters of this wind of the dropping sun, they have to be watched to be loved in their transformations.

Diana had Arthur Rhodes and her faithful Leander for walking companions. If Arthur said: ‘Such a day would be considered melancholy by London people,’ she thanked him in her heart, as a benefactor who had revealed to her things of the deepest. The simplest were her food. Thus does Nature restore us, by drugging the brain and making her creature confidingly animal for its new growth. She imagined herself to have lost the power to think; certainly she had not the striving or the wish. Exercise of her limbs to reach a point of prospect, and of her ears and eyes to note what bird had piped, what flower was out on the banks, and the leaf of what tree it was that lay beneath the budding, satiated her daily desires. She gathered unknowingly a sheaf of landscapes, images, keys of dreamed horizons, that opened a world to her at any chance breath altering shape or hue: a different world from the one of her old ambition. Her fall had brought her renovatingly to earth, and the saving naturalness of the woman recreated her childlike, with shrouded recollections of her strange taste of life behind her; with a tempered fresh blood to enjoy aimlessly, and what would erewhile have been a barrenness to her sensibilities.

In time the craving was evolved for positive knowledge, and shells and stones and weeds were deposited on the library-table at Copsley, botanical and geological books comparingly examined, Emma Dunstane always eager to assist; for the samples wafted her into the heart of the woods. Poor Sir Lukin tried three days of their society, and was driven away headlong to Club-life. He sent down Redworth, with whom the walks of the zealous inquirers were profitable, though Diana, in acknowledging it to herself, reserved a decided preference for her foregone ethereal mood, larger, and untroubled by the presence of a man. The suspicion Emma had sown was not excited to an alarming activity; but she began to question: could the best of men be simply — a woman’s friend? — was not long service rather less than a proof of friendship? She could be blind when her heart was on fire for another. Her passion for her liberty, however, received no ominous warning to look to the defences. He was the same blunt speaker, and knotted his brows as queerly as ever at Arthur, in a transparent calculation of how this fellow meant to gain his livelihood. She wilfully put it to the credit of Arthur’s tact that his elder was amiable, without denying her debt to the good man for leaving her illness and her appearance unmentioned. He forbore even to scan her features. Diana’s wan contemplativeness, in which the sparkle of meaning slowly rose to flash, as we see a bubble rising from the deeps of crystal waters, caught at his heart while he talked his matter-of-fact. But her instinct of a present safety was true. She and Arthur discovered — and it set her first meditating whether she did know the man so very accurately — that he had printed, for private circulation, when at Harrow School, a little book, a record of his observations in nature. Lady Dunstane was the casual betrayer. He shrugged at the nonsense of a boy’s publishing; anybody’s publishing he held for a doubtful proof of sanity. His excuse was, that he had not published opinions. Let us observe, and assist in our small sphere; not come mouthing to the footlights!

‘We retire,’ Diana said, for herself and Arthur.

‘The wise thing, is to avoid the position that enforces publishing,’ said he, to the discomposure of his raw junior.

In the fields he was genially helpful; commending them to the study of the South-west wind, if they wanted to forecast the weather and understand the climate of our country. ‘We have no Seasons, or only a shuffle of them. Old calendars give seven months of the year to the Southwest, and that’s about the average. Count on it, you may generally reckon what to expect. When you don’t have the excess for a year or two, you are drenched the year following.’ He knew every bird by its flight and its pipe, habits, tricks, hints of sagacity homely with the original human; and his remarks on the sensitive life of trees and herbs were a spell to his thirsty hearers. Something of astronomy he knew; but in relation to that science, he sank his voice, touchingly to Diana, who felt drawn to kinship with him when he had a pupil’s tone. An allusion by Arthur to the poetical work of Aratus, led to a memorably pleasant evening’s discourse upon the long reading of the stars by these our mortal eyes. Altogether the mind of the practical man became distinguishable to them as that of a plain brother of the poetic. Diana said of him to Arthur: ‘He does not supply me with similes; he points to the source of them.’ Arthur, with envy of the man of positive knowledge, disguised an unstrung heart in agreeing.

Redworth alluded passingly to the condition of public affairs. Neither of them replied. Diana was wondering how one who perused the eternal of nature should lend a thought to the dusty temporary of the world. Subsequently she reflected that she was asking him to confine his great male appetite to the nibble of bread which nourished her immediate sense of life. Her reflections were thin as mist, coming and going like the mist, with no direction upon her brain, if they sprang from it. When he had gone, welcome though Arthur had seen him to be, she rebounded to a broader and cheerfuller liveliness. Arthur was flattered by an idea of her casting off incubus — a most worthy gentleman, and a not perfectly sympathetic associate. Her eyes had their lost light in them, her step was brisker; she challenged him to former games of conversation, excursions in blank verse here and there, as the mood dictated. They amused themselves, and Emma too. She revelled in seeing Tony’s younger face and hearing some of her natural outbursts. That Dacier never could have been the man for her, would have compressed and subjected her, and inflicted a further taste of bondage in marriage, she was assured. She hoped for the day when Tony would know it, and haply that another, whom she little comprehended, was her rightful mate.

March continued South-westerly and grew rainier, as Redworth had foretold, bidding them look for gales and storm, and then the change of wind. It came, after wettings of a couple scorning the refuge of dainty townsfolk under umbrellas, and proud of their likeness to dripping wayside wildflowers. Arthur stayed at Copsley for a week of the crisp North-easter; and what was it, when he had taken his leave, that brought Tony home from her solitary walk in dejection? It could not be her seriously regretting the absence of the youthful companion she had parted with gaily, appointing a time for another meeting on the heights, and recommending him to repair idle hours with strenuous work. The fit passed and was not explained. The winds are sharp with memory. The hard shrill wind crowed to her senses of an hour on the bleak sands of the French coast; the beginning of the curtained misery, inscribed as her happiness. She was next day prepared for her term in London with Emma, who promised her to make an expedition at the end of it by way of holiday, to see The Crossways, which Mr. Redworth said was not tenanted.

‘You won’t go through it like a captive?’ said Emma.

‘I don’t like it, dear,’ Diana put up a comic mouth. ‘The debts we owe ourselves are the hardest to pay. That is the discovery of advancing age: and I used to imagine it was quite the other way. But they are the debts of honour, imperative. I shall go through it grandly, you will see. If I am stopped at my first recreancy and turned directly the contrary way, I think I have courage.’

‘You will not fear to meet . . . any one?’ said Emma.

‘The world and all it contains! I am robust, eager for the fray, an Amazon, a brazen-faced hussy. Fear and I have parted. I shall not do you discredit. Besides you intend to have me back here with you? And besides again, I burn to make a last brave appearance. I have not outraged the world, dear Emmy, whatever certain creatures in it may fancy.’

She had come out of her dejectedness with a shrewder view of Dacier; equally painful, for it killed her romance, and changed the garden of their companionship in imagination to a waste. Her clearing intellect prompted it, whilst her nature protested, and reviled her to uplift him. He had loved her. ‘I shall die knowing that a man did love me once,’ she said to her widowed heart, and set herself blushing and blanching. But the thought grew inveterate: ‘He could not bear much.’ And in her quick brain it shot up a crop of similitudes for the quality of that man’s love. She shuddered, as at a swift cleaving of cold steel. He had not given her a chance; he had not replied to her letter written with the pen dipped in her heart’s blood; he must have gone straight away to the woman he married. This after almost justifying the scandalous world:— after . . . She realized her sensations of that night when the house-door had closed on him; her feeling of lost sovereignty, degradation, feminine danger, friendliness: and she was unaware, and never knew, nor did the world ever know, what cunning had inspired the frosty Cupid to return to her and be warmed by striking a bargain for his weighty secret. She knew too well that she was not of the snows which do not melt, however high her conceit of herself might place her. Happily she now stood out of the sun, in a bracing temperature, Polar; and her compassion for women was deeply sisterly in tenderness and understanding. She spoke of it to Emma as her gain.

‘I have not seen that you required to suffer to be considerate,’ Emma said.

‘It is on my conscience that I neglected Mary Paynham, among others — and because you did not take to her, Emmy.’

‘The reading of it appears to me, that she has neglected you.’

‘She was not in my confidence, and so I construe it as delicacy. One never loses by believing the best.’

‘If one is not duped.’

‘Expectations dupe us, not trust. The light of every soul burns upward. Of course, most of them are candles in the wind. Let us allow for atmospheric disturbance. Now I thank you, dear, for bringing me back to life. I see that I was really a selfish suicide, because I feel I have power to do some good, and belong to the army. When we are beginning to reflect, as I do now, on a recovered basis of pure health, we have the world at the dawn and know we are young in it, with great riches, great things gained and greater to achieve. Personally I behold a queer little wriggling worm for myself; but as one, of the active world I stand high and shapely; and the very thought of doing work, is like a draught of the desert-springs to me. Instead of which, I have once more to go about presenting my face to vindicate my character. Mr. Redworth would admit no irony in that! At all events, it is anti-climax.’

‘I forgot to tell you, Tony, you have been proposed for,’ said Emma; and there was a rush of savage colour over Tony’s cheeks.

Her apparent apprehensions were relieved by hearing the name of Mr. Sullivan Smith.

‘My poor dear countryman! And he thought me worthy, did he? Some day, when we are past his repeating it, I’ll thank him.’

The fact of her smiling happily at the narration of Sullivan Smith’s absurd proposal by mediatrix, proved to Emma how much her nature thirsted for the smallest support in her self-esteem.

The second campaign of London was of bad augury at the commencement, owing to the ridiculous intervention of a street-organ, that ground its pipes in a sprawling roar of one of the Puritani marches, just as the carriage was landing them at the door of her house. The notes were harsh, dissonant, drunken, interlocked and horribly torn asunder, intolerable to ears not keen to extract the tune through dreadful memories. Diana sat startled and paralyzed. The melody crashed a revival of her days with Dacier, as in gibes; and yet it reached to her heart. She imagined a Providence that was trying her on the threshold, striking at her feebleness. She had to lock herself in her room for an hour of deadly abandonment to misery, resembling the run of poison through her blood, before she could bear to lift eyes on her friend; to whom subsequently she said: ‘Emmy, there are wounds that cut sharp as the enchanter’s sword, and we don’t know we are in halves till some rough old intimate claps us on the back, merely to ask us how we are! I have to join myself together again, as well as I can. It’s done, dear; but don’t notice the cement.’

‘You will be brave,’ Emma petitioned.

‘I long to show you I will.’

The meeting with those who could guess a portion of her story, did not disconcert her. To Lady Pennon and Lady Singleby, she was the brilliant Diana of her nominal luminary issuing from cloud. Face and tongue, she was the same; and once in the stream, she soon gathered its current topics and scattered her arrowy phrases. Lady Pennon ran about with them, declaring that the beautiful speaker, if ever down, was up, and up to her finest mark. Mrs. Fryar–Gannett had then become the blazing regnant antisocial star; a distresser of domesticity, the magnetic attraction in the spirituous flames of that wild snapdragon bowl, called the Upper class; and she was angelically blonde, a straw-coloured Beauty. ‘A lovely wheat sheaf, if the head were ripe,’ Diana said of her.

‘Threshed, says her fame, my dear,’ Lady Pennon replied, otherwise allusive.

‘A wheatsheaf of contention for the bread of wind,’ said Diana, thinking of foolish Sir Lukin; thoughtless of talking to a gossip.

She would have shot a lighter dart, had she meant it to fly and fix.

Proclaim, ye classics, what minor Goddess, or primal, Iris or Ate, sped straight away on wing to the empty wheatsheaf-ears of the golden-visaged Amabel Fryar–Gunnett, daughter of Demeter in the field to behold, of Aphrodite in her rosy incendiarism for the many of men; filling that pearly concave with a perversion of the uttered speech, such as never lady could have repeated, nor man, if less than a reaping harvester: which verily for women to hear, is to stamp a substantial damnatory verification upon the delivery of the saying:—

‘Mrs. Warwick says of you, that you’re a bundle of straws for everybody and bread for nobody.’

Or, stranger speculation, through what, and what number of conduits, curious, and variously colouring, did it reach the fair Amabel of the infant-incradle smile, in that deformation of the original utterance! To pursue the thing, would be to enter the subter-sensual perfumed caverns of a Romance of Fashionable Life, with no hope of coming back to light, other than by tail of lynx, like the great Arabian seaman, at the last page of the final chapter. A prospectively popular narrative indeed! and coin to reward it, and applause. But I am reminded that a story properly closed on the marriage of the heroine Constance and her young Minister of State, has no time for conjuring chemists’ bouquet of aristocracy to lure the native taste. When we have satisfied English sentiment, our task is done, in every branch of art, I hear: and it will account to posterity for the condition of the branches. Those yet wakeful eccentrics interested in such a person as Diana, to the extent of remaining attentive till the curtain falls, demand of me to gather-up the threads concerning her: which my gardener sweeping his pile of dead leaves before the storm and night, advises me to do speedily. But it happens that her resemblance to her sex and species of a civilized period plants the main threads in her bosom. Rogues and a policeman, or a hurried change of front of all the actors, are not a part of our slow machinery.

Nor is she to show herself to advantage. Only those who read her woman’s blood and character with the head, will care for Diana of the Crossways now that the knot of her history has been unravelled. Some little love they must have for her likewise: and how it can be quickened on behalf of a woman who never sentimentalizes publicly, and has no dolly-dolly compliance, and muses on actual life, and fatigues with the exercise of brains, and is in sooth an alien: a princess of her kind and time, but a foreign one, speaking a language distinct from the mercantile, trafficking in ideas:— this is the problem. For to be true to her, one cannot attempt at propitiation. She said worse things of the world than that which was conveyed to the boxed ears of Mrs. Fryar–Gunnett. Accepting the war declared against her a second time, she performed the common mental trick in adversity of setting her personally known innocence to lessen her generally unknown error — but anticipating that this might become known, and the other not; and feeling that the motives of the acknowledged error had served to guard her from being the culprit of the charge she writhed under, she rushed out of a meditation compounded of mind and nerves, with derision of the world’s notion of innocence and estimate of error. It was a mood lasting through her stay in London, and longer, to the discomfort of one among her friends; and it was worthy of The Anti-climax Expedition, as she called it.

For the rest, her demeanour to the old monster world exacting the servility of her, in repayment for its tolerating countenance, was faultless. Emma beheld the introduction to Mrs. Warwick of his bride, by Mr. Percy Dacier. She had watched their approach up the Ball-room, thinking, how differently would Redworth and Tony have looked. Differently, had it been Tony and Dacier: but Emma could not persuade herself of a possible harmony between them, save at the cost of Tony’s expiation of the sin of the greater heart in a performance equivalent to Suttee. Perfectly an English gentleman of the higher order, he seemed the effigy of a tombstone one, fixed upright, and civilly proud of his effigy bride. So far, Emma considered them fitted. She perceived his quick eye on her corner of the room; necessarily, for a man of his breeding, without a change of expression. An emblem pertaining to her creed was on the heroine’s neck; also dependant at her waist. She was white from head to foot; a symbol of purity. Her frail smile appeared deeply studied in purity. Judging from her look and her reputation, Emma divined that the man was justly mated with a devious filmy sentimentalist, likely to ‘fiddle harmonics on the sensual strings’ for him at a mad rate in the years to come. Such fiddling is indeed the peculiar diversion of the opulent of a fatly prosperous people; who take it, one may concede to them, for an inspired elimination of the higher notes of life: the very highest. That saying of Tony’s ripened with full significance to Emma now. Not sensualism, but sham spiritualism, was the meaning; and however fine the notes, they come skilfully evoked of the under-brute in us. Reasoning it so, she thought it a saying for the penetration of the most polished and deceptive of the later human masks. She had besides, be it owned, a triumph in conjuring a sentence of her friend’s, like a sword’s edge, to meet them; for she was boiling angrily at the ironical destiny which had given to those Two a beclouding of her beloved, whom she could have rebuked in turn for her insane caprice of passion.

But when her beloved stood-up to greet Mrs. Percy Dacier, all idea save tremulous admiration of the valiant woman, who had been wounded nigh to death, passed from Emma’s mind. Diana tempered her queenliness to address the favoured lady with smiles and phrases of gentle warmth, of goodness of nature; and it became a halo rather than a personal eclipse that she cast.

Emma looked at Dacier. He wore the prescribed conventional air, subject in half a minute to a rapid blinking of the eyelids. His wife could have been inimically imagined fascinated and dwindling. A spot of colour came to her cheeks. She likewise began to blink.

The happy couple bowed, proceeding; and Emma had Dacier’s back for a study. We score on that flat slate of man, unattractive as it is to hostile observations, and unprotected, the device we choose. Her harshest, was the positive thought that he had taken the woman best suited to him. Doubtless, he was a man to prize the altar-candle above the lamp of day. She fancied the back-view of him shrunken and straitened: perhaps a mere hostile fancy: though it was conceivable that he should desire as little of these meetings as possible. Eclipses are not courted.

The specially womanly exultation of Emma Dunstane in her friend’s noble attitude, seeing how their sex had been struck to the dust for a trifling error, easily to be overlooked by a manful lover, and had asserted its dignity in physical and moral splendour, in self-mastery and benignness, was unshared by Diana. As soon as the business of the expedition was over, her orders were issued for the sale of the lease of her house and all it contained. ‘I would sell Danvers too,’ she said, ‘but the creature declines to be treated as merchandize. It seems I have a faithful servant; very much like my life, not quite to my taste; the one thing out of the wreck! — with my dog!’

Before quitting her house for the return to Copsley, she had to grant Mr. Alexander Hepburn, post-haste from his Caledonia, a private interview. She came out of it noticeably shattered. Nothing was related to Emma, beyond the remark: ‘I never knew till this morning the force of No in earnest.’ The weighty little word — woman’s native watchdog and guardian, if she calls it to her aid in earnest — had encountered and withstood a fiery ancient host, astonished at its novel power of resistance.

Emma contented herself with the result. ‘Were you much supplicated?’

‘An Operatic Fourth–Act,’ said Diana, by no means; feeling so flippantly as she spoke.

She received, while under the impression of this man’s, honest, if primitive, ardour of courtship, or effort to capture, a characteristic letter from Westlake, choicely phrased, containing presumeably an application for her hand, in the generous offer of his own. Her reply to a pursuer of that sort was easy. Comedy, after the barbaric attack, refreshed her wits and reliance on her natural fencing weapons. To Westlake, the unwritten No was conveyed in a series of kindly ironic subterfuges, that, played it like an impish flea across the pages, just giving the bloom of the word; and rich smiles come to Emma’s life in reading the dexterous composition: which, however, proved so thoroughly to Westlake’s taste, that a second and a third exercise in the comedy of the negative had to be despatched to him from Copsley.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/meredith/george/diana-of-the-crossways/chapter39.html

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