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

Chapter 5

Concerning the Scrupulous Gentleman who Came Too Late

On the Saturday of his appointment Redworth arrived at Copsley, with a shade deeper of the calculating look under his thick brows, habitual to him latterly. He found Lady Dunstane at her desk, pen in hand, the paper untouched; and there was an appearance of trouble about her somewhat resembling his own, as he would have observed, had he been open-minded enough to notice anything, except that she was writing a letter. He begged her to continue it; he proposed to read a book till she was at leisure.

‘I have to write, and scarcely know how,’ said she, clearing her face to make the guest at home, and taking a chair by the fire, ‘I would rather chat for half an hour.’

She spoke of the weather, frosty, but tonic; bad for the last days of hunting, good for the farmer and the country, let us hope.

Redworth nodded assent. It might be surmised that he was brooding over those railways, in which he had embarked his fortune. Ah! those railways! She was not long coming to the wailful exclamation upon them, both to express her personal sorrow at the disfigurement of our dear England, and lead to a little, modest, offering of a woman’s counsel to the rash adventurer; for thus could she serviceably put aside her perplexity awhile. Those railways! When would there be peace in the land? Where one single nook of shelter and escape from them! And the English, blunt as their senses are to noise and hubbub, would be revelling in hisses, shrieks, puffings and screeches, so that travelling would become an intolerable affliction. ‘I speak rather as an invalid,’ she admitted; ‘I conjure up all sorts of horrors, the whistle in the night beneath one’s windows, and the smoke of trains defacing the landscape; hideous accidents too. They will be wholesale and past help. Imagine a collision! I have borne many changes with equanimity, I pretend to a certain degree of philosophy, but this mania for cutting up the land does really cause me to pity those who are to follow us. They will not see the England we have seen. It will be patched and scored, disfigured . . . a sort of barbarous Maori visage — England in a New Zealand mask. You may call it the sentimental view. In this case, I am decidedly sentimental: I love my country. I do love quiet, rural England. Well, and I love beauty, I love simplicity. All that will be destroyed by the refuse of the towns flooding the land — barring accidents, as Lukin says. There seems nothing else to save us.’

Redworth acquiesced. ‘Nothing.’

‘And you do not regret it?’ he was asked.

‘Not a bit. We have already exchanged opinions on the subject. Simplicity must go, and the townsman meet his equal in the countryman. As for beauty, I would sacrifice that to circulate gumption. A bushelful of nonsense is talked pro and con: it always is at an innovation. What we are now doing, is to take a longer and a quicker stride, that is all.’

‘And establishing a new field for the speculator.’

‘Yes, and I am one, and this is the matter I wanted to discuss with you, Lady Dunstane,’ said Redworth, bending forward, the whole man devoted to the point of business.

She declared she was complimented; she felt the compliment, and trusted her advice might be useful, faintly remarking that she had a woman’s head: and ‘not less’ was implied as much as ‘not more,’ in order to give strength to her prospective opposition.

All his money, she heard, was down on the railway table. He might within a year have a tolerable fortune: and, of course, he might be ruined. He did not expect it; still he fronted the risks. ‘And now,’ said he, ‘I come to you for counsel. I am not held among my acquaintances to be a marrying man, as it’s called.’

He paused. Lady Dunstane thought it an occasion to praise him for his considerateness.

‘You involve no one but yourself, you mean?’ Her eyes shed approval. ‘Still the day may come . . . I say only that it may: and the wish to marry is a rosy colouring . . . equal to a flying chariot in conducting us across difficulties and obstructions to the deed. And then one may have to regret a previous rashness.’

These practical men are sometimes obtuse: she dwelt on that vision of the future.

He listened, and resumed: ‘My view of marriage is, that no man should ask a woman to be his wife unless he is well able to support her in the comforts, not to say luxuries, she is accustomed to.’ His gaze had wandered to the desk; it fixed there. ‘That is Miss Merion’s writing,’ he said.

‘The letter?’ said Lady Dunstane, and she stretched out her hand to press down a leaf of it. ‘Yes; it is from her.’

‘Is she quite well?’

‘I suppose she is. She does not speak of her health.’

He looked pertinaciously in the direction of the letter, and it was not rightly mannered. That letter, of all others, was covert and sacred to the friend. It contained the weightiest of secrets.

‘I have not written to her,’ said Redworth.

He was astonishing: ‘To whom? To Diana? You could very well have done so, only I fancy she knows nothing, has never given a thought to railway stocks and shares; she has a loathing for speculation.’

‘And speculators too, I dare say!’

‘It is extremely probable.’ Lady Dunstane spoke with an emphasis, for the man liked Diana, and would be moved by the idea of forfeiting her esteem.

‘She might blame me if I did anything dishonourable!’

‘She certainly would.’

‘She will have no cause.’

Lady Dunstane began to look, as at a cloud charged with remote explosions: and still for the moment she was unsuspecting. But it was a flitting moment. When he went on, and very singularly droning to her ear: ‘The more a man loves a woman, the more he should be positive, before asking her, that she will not have to consent to a loss of position, and I would rather lose her than fail to give her all — not be sure, as far as a man can be sure, of giving her all I think she’s worthy of’: then the cloud shot a lightning flash, and the doors of her understanding swung wide to the entry of a great wonderment. A shock of pain succeeded it. Her sympathy was roused so acutely that she slipped over the reflective rebuke she would have addressed to her silly delusion concerning his purpose in speaking of his affairs to a woman. Though he did not mention Diana by name, Diana was clearly the person. And why had he delayed to speak to her? — Because of this venture of his money to make him a fortune, for the assurance of her future comfort! Here was the best of men for the girl, not displeasing to her; a good, strong, trustworthy man, pleasant to hear and to see, only erring in being a trifle too scrupulous in love: and a fortnight back she would have imagined he had no chance; and now she knew that the chance was excellent in those days, with this revelation in Diana’s letter, which said that all chance was over.

‘The courtship of a woman,’ he droned away, ‘is in my mind not fair to her until a man has to the full enough to sanction his asking her to marry him. And if he throws all he possesses on a stake . . . to win her — give her what she has a right to claim, he ought. . . . Only at present the prospect seems good. . . . He ought of course to wait. Well, the value of the stock I hold has doubled, and it increases. I am a careful watcher of the market. I have friends — brokers and railway Directors. I can rely on them.’

‘Pray,’ interposed Lady Dunstane, ‘specify — I am rather in a mist — the exact point upon which you do me the honour to consult me.’ She ridiculed herself for having imagined that such a man would come to consult her upon a point of business.

‘It is,’ he replied, ‘this: whether, as affairs now stand with me — I have an income from my office, and personal property . . . say between thirteen and fourteen hundred a year to start with — whether you think me justified in asking a lady to share my lot?’

‘Why not? But will you name the lady?’

‘Then I may write at once? In your judgement. . . . Yes, the lady. I have not named her. I had no right. Besides, the general question first, in fairness to the petitioner. You might reasonably stipulate for more for a friend. She could make a match, as you have said . . . ’ he muttered of ‘brilliant,’ and ‘the highest’; and his humbleness of the honest man enamoured touched Lady Dunstane. She saw him now as the man of strength that she would have selected from a thousand suitors to guide her dear friend.

She caught at a straw: ‘Tell me, it is not Diana?’

‘Diana Merion!’

As soon as he had said it he perceived pity, and he drew himself tight for the stroke. ‘She’s in love with some one?’

‘She is engaged.’

He bore it well. He was a big-chested fellow, and that excruciating twist within of the revolution of the wheels of the brain snapping their course to grind the contrary to that of the heart, was revealed in one short lift and gasp, a compression of the tremendous change he underwent.

‘Why did you not speak before?’ said Lady Dunstane. Her words were tremulous.

‘I should have had no justification!’

‘You might have won her!’ She could have wept; her sympathy and her self-condolence under disappointment at Diana’s conduct joined to swell the feminine flood.

The poor fellow’s quick breathing and blinking reminded her of cruelty in a retrospect. She generalized, to ease her spirit of regret, by hinting it without hurting: ‘Women really are not puppets. They are not so excessively luxurious. It is good for young women in the early days of marriage to rough it a little.’ She found herself droning, as he had done.

He had ears for nothing but the fact.

‘Then I am too late!’

‘I have heard it today.’

‘She is engaged! Positively?’

Lady Dunstane glanced backward at the letter on her desk. She had to answer the strangest of letters that had ever come to her, and it was from her dear Tony, the baldest intimation of the weightiest piece of intelligence which a woman can communicate to her heart’s friend. The task of answering it was now doubled. ‘I fear so, I fancy so,’ she said, and she longed to cast eye over the letter again, to see if there might possibly be a loophole behind the lines.

‘Then I must make my mind up to it,’ said Redworth. ‘I think I’ll take a walk.’

She smiled kindly. ‘It will be our secret.’

‘I thank you with all my heart, Lady Dunstane.’

He was not a weaver of phrases in distress. His blunt reserve was eloquent of it to her, and she liked him the better; could have thanked him, too, for leaving her promptly.

When she was alone she took in the contents of the letter at a hasty glimpse. It was of one paragraph, and fired its shot like a cannon with the muzzle at her breast:—

‘MY OWN EMMY — I have been asked in marriage by Mr. Warwick, and have accepted him. Signify your approval, for I have decided that it is the wisest thing a waif can do. We are to live at The Crossways for four months of the year, so I shall have Dada in his best days and all my youngest dreams, my sunrise and morning dew, surrounding me; my old home for my new one. I write in haste, to you first, burning to hear from you. Send your blessing to yours in life and death, through all transformations,

‘TONY.’

That was all. Not a word of the lover about to be decorated with the title of husband. No confession of love, nor a single supplicating word to her friend, in excuse for the abrupt decision to so grave a step. Her previous description of, him, as a ‘gentlemanly official’ in his appearance, conjured him up most distastefully. True, she might have made a more lamentable choice; a silly lordling, or a hero of scandals; but if a gentlemanly official was of stabler mould, he failed to harmonize quite so well with the idea of a creature like Tony. Perhaps Mr. Redworth also failed in something. Where was the man fitly to mate her! Mr. Redworth, however, was manly and trustworthy, of the finest Saxon type in build and in character. He had great qualities, and his excess of scrupulousness was most pitiable.

She read: ‘The wisest thing a waif can do.’ It bore a sound of desperation. Avowedly Tony had accepted him without being in love. Or was she masking the passion? No: had it been a case of love, she would have written very differently to her friend.

Lady Dunstane controlled the pricking of the wound inflicted by Diana’s novel exercise in laconics where the fullest flow was due to tenderness, and despatched felicitations upon the text of the initial line: ‘Wonders are always happening.’ She wrote to hide vexation beneath surprise; naturally betraying it. ‘I must hope and pray that you have not been precipitate.’ Her curiosity to inspect the happiest of men, the most genuine part of her letter, was expressed coldly.

When she had finished the composition she perused it, and did not recognize herself in her language, though she had been so guarded to cover the wound her Tony dealt their friendship — in some degree injuring their sex. For it might now, after such an example, verily seem that women are incapable of a translucent perfect confidence: their impulses, caprices, desperations, tricks of concealment, trip a heart-whole friendship. Well, tomorrow, if not today, the tripping may be expected! Lady Dunstane resigned herself sadly to a lowered view of her Tony’s character. This was her unconscious act of reprisal. Her brilliant beloved Tony, dazzling but in beauty and the gifted mind, stood as one essentially with the common order of women. She wished to be settled, Mr. Warwick proposed, and for the sake of living at The Crossways she accepted him — she, the lofty scorner of loveless marriages! who had said — how many times! that nothing save love excused it! She degraded their mutual high standard of womankind. Diana was in eclipse, full three parts. The bulk of the gentlemanly official she had chosen obscured her. But I have written very carefully, thought Lady Dunstane, dropping her answer into the post-bag. She had, indeed, been so care ful, that to cloak her feelings, she had written as another person. Women with otiose husbands have a task to preserve friendship.

Redworth carried his burden through the frosty air at a pace to melt icicles in Greenland. He walked unthinkingly, right ahead, to the red West, as he discovered when pausing to consult his watch. Time was left to return at the same pace and dress for dinner; he swung round and picked up remembrances of sensations he had strewn by the way. She knew these woods; he was walking in her footprints; she was engaged to be married. Yes, his principle, never to ask a woman to marry him, never to court her, without bank-book assurance of his ability to support her in cordial comfort, was right. He maintained it, and owned himself a donkey for having stuck to it. Between him and his excellent principle there was war, without the slightest division. Warned of the danger of losing her, he would have done the same again, confessing himself donkey for his pains. The principle was right, because it was due to the woman. His rigid adherence to the principle set him belabouring his donkey-ribs, as the proper due to himself. For he might have had a chance, all through two Winters. The opportunities had been numberless. Here, in this beech wood; near that thornbush; on the juniper slope; from the corner of chalk and sand in junction, to the corner of clay and chalk; all the length of the wooded ridge he had reminders of her presence and his priceless chances: and still the standard of his conduct said No, while his heart bled.

He felt that a chance had been. More sagacious than Lady Dunstane, from his not nursing a wound, he divined in the abruptness of Diana’s resolution to accept a suitor, a sober reason, and a fitting one, for the wish that she might be settled. And had he spoken! — If he had spoken to her, she might have given her hand to him, to a dishonourable brute! A blissful brute. But a worse than donkey. Yes, his principle was right, and he lashed with it, and prodded with it, drove himself out into the sour wilds where bachelordom crops noxious weeds without a hallowing luminary, and clung to it, bruised and bleeding though he was.

The gentleness of Lady Dunstane soothed him during the term of a visit that was rather like purgatory sweetened by angelical tears. He was glad to go, wretched in having gone. She diverted the incessant conflict between his insubordinate self and his castigating, but avowedly sovereign, principle. Away from her, he was the victim of a flagellation so dire that it almost drove him to revolt against the lord he served, and somehow the many memories at Copsley kept him away. Sir Lukin, when speaking of Diana’s ‘engagement to that fellow Warwick,’ exalted her with an extraordinary enthusiasm, exceedingly hard for the silly beast who had lost her to bear. For the present the place dearest to Redworth of all places on earth was unendurable.

Meanwhile the value of railway investments rose in the market, fast as asparagus-heads for cutting: a circumstance that added stings to reflection. Had he been only a little bolder, a little less the fanatical devotee of his rule of masculine honour, less the slave to the letter of success. . . . But why reflect at all? Here was a goodly income approaching, perhaps a seat in Parliament; a station for the airing of his opinions — and a social status for the wife now denied to him. The wife was denied to him; he could conceive of no other. The tyrant-ridden, reticent, tenacious creature had thoroughly wedded her in mind; her view of things had a throne beside his own, even in their differences. He perceived, agreeing or disagreeing, the motions of her brain, as he did with none other of women; and this it is which stamps character on her, divides her from them, upraises and enspheres. He declined to live with any other of the sex.

Before he could hear of the sort of man Mr. Warwick was — a perpetual object of his quest — the bridal bells had rung, and Diana Antonia Merion lost her maiden name. She became the Mrs. Warwick of our footballing world.

Why she married, she never told. Possibly, in amazement at herself subsequently, she forgot the specific reason. That which weighs heavily in youth, and commits us to desperate action, will be a trifle under older eyes, to blunter senses, a more enlightened understanding. Her friend Emma probed for the reason vainly. It was partly revealed to Redworth, by guess-work and a putting together of pieces, yet quite luminously, as it were by touch of tentacle-feelers — one evening that he passed with Sir Lukin Dunstane, when the lachrymose exdragoon and son of Idlesse, had rather more than dined.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/meredith/george/diana-of-the-crossways/chapter5.html

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